SF State’s retelling of ‘Othello’ kicks off theater arts season Aug. 30

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For the people of Venice and Cyprus — the survivors at least — only a void existed. Civilization was abandoned and brutalized by a catastrophe capsizing everything familiar.

In this post-apocalyptic world, hope lay within the gentle Moor, Othello, but the unknown consumed him. With his heart distressed by an infectious jealousy that challenged his masculinity, evil seeped deep within him, rotting out all that was good.

One of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedies, “Othello: Moor of Venice” is as timeless as it is classic and SF State grad student Steve Bologna revs up the department of the theatre arts’ fall season with his version of the play, showcasing the poet’s relevance in a contemporary fashion.

“The idea that I had was if we had a chance to start over, given some sort of world decimation, what choices would we make?” Bologna said.

In his collegiate directorial debut, the 36-year-old Bologna chose “Othello” as his master’s degree creative project. Surfacing new themes by pulling elements from Giuseppe Verdi’s opera “Otello” and Niccolo Machiavelli’s “The Prince,” Bologna places his Othello in an unknown future where the senate is controlled by women, and the most intelligent warrior, Cassio, is also a woman.

“It creates some interesting issues,” Bologna said. “(Cassio) being a womanizer in fact and having a woman play that role breaks down certain barriers.”

Bologna explained that before he held auditions, he knew this was a theme he wanted to explore. He intentionally sought out a female actor to play the misogynistic Cassio, portrayed by SF State alumna April Fritz.

Juliana Lustenader, SF State senior who plays Desdemona, said the women in Bologna’s version challenge the “typical Elizabethan female” who is normally associated with Shakespeare’s characters. The fact that Cassio is a woman creates a new level of jealousy for Othello when he questions the relationship between his wife Desdemona and Cassio.

“Instead of it being, ‘My wife is cheating on me with another man, my wife is cheating on me with a woman! What does that say about me?’” Lustenader said.

Bologna also stresses the theme of Machiavellian rhetoric that is enhanced through his use of the character Iago, played by junior Michael Zavala.

“(Iago) illustrates his tactics very clearly and that is a type of psychotic personality that is very unique and probably even more scary than someone that is just plain old-fashioned evil,” Bologna said. “That got me very excited about what he talks about and how he talks about how he manipulates people on stage, but at the same time he is manipulating an audience.”

Assistant director Andrew Akraboff, who also plays Brabantio, said, “It’s sort of that high-class opera being torn down by this post-apocalyptic world that we are setting it in.”

Akraboff said that manipulation is a highlighted theme pulled from the Machiavellian idea.

“There’s a lot more focus on Iago and how he’s playing everybody to get his ends and everybody’s just sort of a fly caught in his web of lies,” he said.

Bologna said it has been a blessing to be able to come back to SF State. He has the freedom to work on projects like “Othello,” where he is researching, directing and inserting his own criticism.

Since Bologna finished his undergrad at SF State in 2004 and received a bachelor’s degree in theater with an emphasis on performance, he has been up and down the West Coast working for various film and production agencies from Oregon to Los Angeles.

He has worked as an actor in semi-professional and professional environments and, though he has more than 20 years of experience under his belt, Bologna found it necessary to return to SF State to finalize the academic career he started.

“Part of the benefit of master’s of arts in drama is that it’s very attractive to community college theater,” said Bologna, describing how he would love to teach at the community college level.

Hitting the acting circuit and resurrecting his old production company are two of his goals, but teaching theater is his true passion.

“I wanted to help actors like myself get transferred and make them very technically prepared for four-year programs and in turn be more prepared for master’s programs,” Bologna said.

Thus far in his master’s program at SF State, Bologna works with the intention of earning a degree in drama with an emphasis on directing. Therefore his master’s creative project, “Othello” is his creation and vision where he gets to teach, direct and learn from his fellow students.

Stage manager and senior Sara Ramos said Bologna has really made the production a collaborative effort that the entire cast and crew benefits from.

“Working with Steve I tend to forget that it’s really even a student production because he is really on top of his stuff,” she said. “It’s nice to have someone who I can work well confidently with and ask questions and get sort of a rapport with.”

Bologna wanted to create a fun environment but also ensure professionalism. After auditions and casting last spring, rehearsals started mid-July to ease the transition into the student production.

“It was very important to me to make sure that this project had either recent graduates or people that were still in the student body,” said Bologna. “I wanted to ensure that (I was) educating at the same time which is my primary focus.”

“Othello” opens Thursday, Aug. 30 at 7 p.m. and runs through Saturday, Sept. 1 and will be performed in Studio Theatre in the Creative Arts Building at SF State. Admission is $5 and free to all theatre majors.

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Latest comments
  • Cassio a woman? Ha! Ha! Ha! And after he supposedly made Desdemona, and Iago’s wife, Emilia, and had a whore, Bianca, desperately in love with him? Wow! Such potency! This is fun! On what basis internal to the play is Cassio thought to be a woman? I don’t mean general ideas of psychology and gender that we now understand that Shakespeare never knew about. I would have thought it more tenable to have Othello be gay. Remember the scene with his and Iago’s legs intertwined in bed? A gay Othello! That has a ring to it! (Has it already been done? I guess I missed it, if it has. Direct me to such an interpretation, if one exists.) But then, a “swishy” Othello would be politically incorrect – and would offend the black community, generally, as it would destroy an icon.. PLEASE – tell me what evidence INTERNAL to the play supports the idea that Cassio is a woman – not general suppositions, but lines and scenes in the play. I think you should know that scholarly critics of Shakespeare reject interpretations other than the accepted ones. Eventually, I’ll post a re-interpretation of “Othello,” but it isn’t a gender-bender one. I took the time to read the accepted interpretations of “Othello” before I proceeded with my interpretation. Did you? TRC

    • On what basis is it suggested that you cannot change the gender of Shakespeare’s characters? And who are these scholars you refer to. Jan Kott does not imply such a notion Stephen Greenblatt doesn’t imply this as well. However, scholars hardly ever direct, or act. By your rational(if you can call it that, Desdemona would be played by a young boy, That’s how the Elizabethans would have cast her. Needless to say, I just say an all female version of Hamlet, is that wrong too. I am sure this what you do all day criticize things before you ever get the chance to think.

      By the way there are plenty of Othello’s that imply, or flat out, interpret Othello and Iago as being gay. Then again Shakespeare’s “text doesn’t support that”. Personally I could take a shot at answering your question. There is nothing internal to the play that suggests that Cassio or anyone for that matter, can be changed to female. However, this hardly matters to most theatre artists( Not scholars) but the actual people who act, direct, and design Shakespeare’s plays.

      Then again maybe you just need a hug!