Erin Kilmurray Credit: Sarah Larson

A year and a half after the stage went dark, Court Theatre presents its first live performance since the world was plagued with pandemic and the country with civil unrest. The chosen play is Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Othello, The Moor of Venice, which places racial discrimination, misogyny, toxic masculinity, and all the ills not resolved in the past 417 years into the time and space of the theater to be examined collectively once more. 

Codirectors Charles Newell and Gabrielle Randle-Bent previously collaborated with movement designer Erin Kilmurray on a terse and searing production of Oedipus Rex in 2019, one of the last productions Court staged before the pandemic. “The hardest part of Oedipus Rex turned into the most beautiful part,” says Randle-Bent of the choral odes—the commentary by the crowd. “We could have used all of the language or none of it—and we ended up using almost none of it.” The transformation of the odes into movement sequences led to an insight for the directors: “One of the most innovative, thoughtful ways to engage with a classical text in a new way without leaning into adaptation or reimagining it is to imagine that bodies are as good at telling stories as verbalizing them.” 

Othello continues Court’s consideration of how movement can enhance, emphasize, and even replace the words of an oft-recited play. “Early on in this process, when we hit text that is challenging or storytelling that’s limited, we asked, ‘What does movement give us that language doesn’t, because this is too important to miss?’” says Randle-Bent, describing an approach that resulted in the distillation of the first scenes in Venice to a two-minute movement prologue. “From the prologue through the party, we’re telling things in the script that might not exist in the space in the same way that the language does through movement and gesture. We’re thinking of movement as a storytelling practice, as part of the aesthetic and the environment, not because it’s beautiful but because it helps us as storytellers be more effective and efficient and tap into each other in the way that language and text don’t always.”

Othello
Previews through 10/15, Wed-Fri 7:30 PM; opens Sat 10/16, 7:30 PM: through 12/5, Wed-Thu 7:30 PM, Sat-Sun 2 and 7:30 PM; no shows Wed-Thu 11/24-11/25, Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis, 773-753-4472, courtheatre.org, previews $46-$58, regular run $56-$76 (streaming option available, $35-$50).

“Text is so crucial and is the entry point for most actors,” says Kilmurray, who returns as movement designer. “We tried to disrupt expectations of how this production might get built by beginning with the body instead of beginning with the words. That was part of our practice every day: each rehearsal began with a movement workshop—a warm-up and exercises to develop a vocabulary for this play.” As is central to her artistic practice, the process Kilmurray developed with the actors was collaborative, a combination of prompts and activities to draw movement responses from the habits and idioms of the actors as individuals and as characters.

“The directing team was interested in developing a movement vocabulary for the violences that happen in the play,” she says. “Charlie and Gabby were sure that what they were not interested in were simulated physical fights, so they were looking for physicalities that could still be in the proximity of another person and in which the intention and the storytelling could be clear, but they didn’t want fake punches being thrown. What is the emotional experience of the act of causing harm? And the consequence of taking that person’s breath away? That person’s breath leaves. This is the texture, the physicality of the body in this moment. 

“On our first day of rehearsal, we looked at the actors, and we went, ‘Here are these questions we have. We need to have fights, and deaths need to occur, but we do not want to put hands on bodies, and we do not want to use fake weapons. We don’t know what that’s going to look like yet.’

Kelvin Roston Jr. as Othello and Amanda Drinkall as Desdemona in Othello at Court Theatre. Credit: Michael Brosilow

“One of the first exercises was a simple task: the actors had a partner, and they had to decide for themselves if they were an ‘alpha’ or a ‘beta.’ Which one are you and when? If you can only use your body, how do you express these things and figure out who the other is? And you can change your mind, and no one will ever know. This led to conversations about what we thought we saw, and what they experienced. From those conversations, we generated as a group the things that make them feel this way.

“In another generative exercise, everybody designed six different ways of [expressing] desperation. Now we have several dozen physicalities of desperation, and we got to unpack those as well. Why this? Tell me about the choice to make this extremely small hand gripping versus that huge, beyond-the-kinesphere choice. We all gave each other a lot of grace. The actors allowed us to be in a process, just as we allowed them to be in a process. What we had to do first was make the language—and then we could shape it.”

The result, brought to a set designed by John Culbert that extends the playing space into, above, and around the audience seating, offers viewers choices beyond the boundaries of a traditional proscenium presentation. 

“A large portion of the audience are on the stage in swivel chairs,” says Kilmurray. “You can see the action anywhere you want. So, in addition to crucial storytelling elements, we hope that the prologue provides some context about how the play can be viewed right away. The first two minutes is an introduction to the world we built physically, the way that bodies are going to move around, the ways audience has autonomy over parts of the story they want to see”—which illustrates among its possibilities a fundamental difference between how movement and speech function onstage: when someone is speaking, they command focus. But with movement, everyone can speak at once without speaking on top of the others.

“For better or for worse, I come from dance training, and my connection to histories and lineages of craft come from primarily dance, so it’s a unique experience to walk into theatrical spaces because I don’t hold the history of the play or the text with the same sense of its lineage as other folks do. Maybe that’s a good thing because I don’t have a lot of experience knowing what productions traditionally do,” says Kilmurray. “At Court, there is an interest in investing in the process of allowing a movement director or designer to work with the company of actors to coauthor the choreography. It feels unique to me for theater in particular, though for a lot of dance practice it’s expected to participate in the crafting of material. That’s true of my personal practice. That’s what’s fascinating to me, another person’s choice.”