In perhaps its most daring venture yet, Titan Theatre Company will bring an all-female version of “Othello,” one of Shakespeare’s most gripping dramas, to Queens Theatre for a limited run of 11 performances beginning April 17.
And, perhaps most shockingly, the women are not playing the traditionally male roles as men; they are playing them as female characters, creating some interesting and, at times, deeper new relationships among the characters.
For this production, the tale of love, jealousy and revenge, focusing on the title character, a Moorish general, his beloved wife, Desdemona, and his trusted but unfaithful ensign, Iago, has been streamlined by director Lenny Banovez into a taut two-hour running time.
During a rehearsal break, Banovez, a Sunnyside resident who is also the troupe’s artistic director, said he had the idea for five years, but it was “always on the back burner.” It was the recent presentation on Broadway of two other Shakespearean works, presented with all-male casts as they were done in the Bard’s day, that prompted him to move forward.
“Now seemed to be the perfect time to do an all-female show,” he said. “I’ve always put female actors in male roles. We have so many strong female company members. I wanted to pick the most masculine play.”
But he was quick to downplay the sexual aspects of the production. “When you make everyone female, everyone wants to go to sexuality. We haven’t ignored that, but we haven’t highlighted that,” he said.
The point has not been lost on Carol Linnea Johnson, a Broadway veteran who appears as the Duke of Venice, who provides the impetus for Othello to explain how he came to woo his wife.
“The story is the story,” said Johnson, a Chicago transplant who lives in Sunnyside. “We may be all women, but after five minutes, you’re all on board. You invest in the characters regardless of gender.”
Castmate Deanna Gibson, a resident of Astoria who plays Emilia, the wife of Iago, added, “We’re doing hardcore combat. It’s not important that we’re women. We’re just people.”
In fact, there is so much action in the production that a fight choreographer, Jonathan Hicks, helped with the staging.
In the end, the actors seemed to agree their rendition is less about sexuality and more about status and power.
“By making it all women,” Johnson said, “those aspects of who has status comes down to personality, not gender.”
For Gibson, the production’s gender-bending hasn’t informed her portrayal of Iago’s wife as much as she first expected.
“Iago is a woman who’s a little more masculine than I am,” Gibson said.
Feelings of jealousy and doubt, Johnson added, are “universal struggles, whether you’re a man or woman.” In this respect, she said, working as part of an all-female cast “is very freeing.”
Banovez’s real-life wife, Laura Frye, who plays Iago, has found that the reversal of sexes “ups the level of intimacy between the characters. It seems to come across as if relationships are closer.”
Citing the relationship between Iago and Roderigo, a rich gentleman who is in love with Desdemona, she added, “The intimacy of their friendship is more than we’ve seen” in previous renderings of the play. “Women are by nature more intimate creatures.”
The production, in which Leah Dutchin plays the title role, features a total of 13 actors, among them three resident acting members, according to Banovez. The rest are guest artists, many of whom are members of the Actors’ Equity Association, the professional actors union.
For Banovez, a challenge has been “not to make the ladies caricatures.”