Kareem Bandealy and Michael Patrick Thornton in the Gift Theatre's Othello
Kareem Bandealy and Michael Patrick Thornton in the Gift Theatre's Othello Credit: Claire Demos

Editor’s note: Michael Patrick Thornton has been replaced for the final two weeks of the run by fellow Gift ensemble member Gabriel Franken.

Representation is a controversial subject in the theater these days. Who gets to play a Puerto Rican? An Asian? A transsexual? Puerto Ricans, Asians, and transsexuals? Or George Chakiris (in West Side Story), Jonathan Pryce (Miss Saigon), and Neil Patrick Harris (Hedwig and the Angry Inch)? Personally, I understand the economic and political arguments for authenticity in casting. There’s a lot of lost income to be recovered, a lot of silly makeup effects to be avenged. But it’s not as easy to justify aesthetically. I mean, what’s the point of acting, or doing any transformative art for that matter, if it’s considered regressive to transform?

Ambiguities creep in even when you’re dealing with Shakespeare. I think we’d all agree that King Charles II made the right choice along about 1660, when he officially permitted women to perform female roles on the English stage. But what would be the correct ruling on whether Al Pacino has the right to portray Shylock?

And then there’s the Bard’s other great Other, Othello, who’s traditionally been embodied by white men in blackface, apparently laboring under the mistaken impression that he’s a sub-Saharan African when in fact he’s a Moor, which would make him either Arab or Berber. In his 1965 movie version of the tragedy, Laurence Olivier seems to think Othello hails from somewhere in the Caribbean. The nominally more progressive solution, whereby a black actor plays the mercenary who loved not wisely but too well, is just as dubious if it’s racial fidelity you’re after.

So it’s interesting to see how Pakistani-American actor Kareem Bandealy handles the title role in Gift Theatre’s gutsy new modern-dress Othello, directed by Jonathan Berry.

Let’s be clear: Bandealy isn’t a Moor anymore than Olivier was. We’re dealing in ballpark approximations here. It’s just that his ancestral connection to the Muslim world arguably puts him closer to the pitcher’s mound. In any case, Bandealy’s take on Othello seems deeply rooted in the character’s cultural identity.

Othello is a stranger in the strange land of Venice, serving his hosts’ military interests even if that means fighting people—like the Ottoman Turks—with whom you’d think he’d have more of an affinity. When he woos and secretly wins wealthy local girl Desdemona (Brittany Burch), her father, Brabantio, vomits up a racist tirade and tries to get Othello condemned for witchcraft, since that’s the only means by which he can imagine the “sooty” fellow accomplishing such a seduction. Unfortunately for Brabantio, the Venetian duke values Othello too much to throw him in prison, and so the old man’s only recourse is to die of a broken heart. Or, more likely, apoplexy.

Meanwhile, the Moor has unwittingly made a vicious and extraordinarily competent enemy in his ensign, Iago. Enraged at being passed over for promotion, Iago has hatched a plan to destroy Othello by playing on his insecurities—i.e., making him believe that Desdemona is cuckolding him with Cassio, the handsome white kid who got the job Iago wanted.

Of course, Iago’s task is made that much easier by Othello’s inherently insecure status as a dark-skinned alien, his usefulness to the state notwithstanding. Bandealy allows him a quiet pugnacity early on, standing insolently close to John Kelly Connolly’s Brabantio as Brabantio speaks daggers to him. But this Othello is also a model soldier: compact, self-contained, cultivated, and serious, with ramrod posture and a polished head that makes him resemble no one so much as Ben Kingsley—who, incidentally, was born Krishna Pandit Bhanji and did an Othello of his own in 1985.

Yet as Iago’s insinuations take hold, Bandealy’s increasingly disoriented Moor reverts to behaviors that seem to well up from some suppressed part of him. His speech, his mannerisms, his bearing, his choices all seem increasingly, well, foreign—an effect rendered more emphatic by the Levantine music used by sound designer Christian Gero. In the end Bandealy’s Othello feels an awful lot like Amir, the corporate lawyer in Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Disgraced, who marries the whitest woman he can find and scorns what he regards as the barbarism of his south-Asian Muslim heritage only to succumb to a version of that barbarism when the contradictions become too great to bear.

The physical intensity of Bandealy’s metamorphosis is bold as hell. Othello has a full-out epileptic seizure at one point (it’s in the script), yet Bandealy has him experiencing jealousy-induced paroxysms nearly as intense, as if he were giving birth to a fiercer, more ancient twin. This comes at the cost of some verbal and narrative clarity—Bandealy’s breathed words can’t be heard at times, even in the Gift’s tiny storefront—but the audacity of the gesture makes it worthwhile.

And his performance is balanced by audacity at the opposite end of the spectrum, in Michael Patrick Thornton‘s Iago. With a grunt’s buzz cut like the one Ernest Borgnine wore in From Here to Eternity, Thornton is an implacable, unflappable eyes-on-the-prize manipulator whose regular-guyness only adds to his ability to unsettle us. At one point, a knife is driven into his leg and he doesn’t react; since he’s wheelchair bound, it’s entirely possible that this Iago literally has no feeling in his legs. But that’s hardly the point. The point is that the lack of response speaks to the nature of the man.