The military leader is a forceful figure who arouses suspicion in the populace. He’s a foreigner, a convert to Christianity. And he’s black — with a beautiful, well-bred white wife whose father is a prominent senator. Native folks resent his power. Evil rumors fly. Insults are hurled. Jealousy prevails: This guy is not from around here. He’s not one of us.
That scenario could be ripped from today’s headlines, but it is actually the plot of Shakespeare’s “Othello,” written more than 400 years ago. Director Bill Rauch could not help but notice the play’s resonance to today’s times, so he set it in the present, with Shakespeare’s Venice transplanted to the United States and the actors in contemporary costumes. “I cannot imagine a more urgent time to tell this story,’’ says Rauch, currently artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and soon-to-be artistic director of the new Ronald O. Perelman Center for Performing Arts at the World Trade Center. “At this particular point in the early 21st century, relevant is too soft a word. ‘Othello’ is famously about race, but there is just as much text devoted to his being an immigrant to the society and not being native to that culture. The specter of religious bigotry is very present. It felt essential to me to put it in a contemporary setting.”
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival production, which features a multicultural cast of 12 and played for nine months last year in Oregon, is being presented by the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, with previews beginning Sunday. Chris Butler, who plays the title role, never expected to be going to such a desolate place for so long. It’s a role he has always relished. “I originally wanted to do a regular African-American experience,’’ he says. “I felt black folks have enough issues and that I could do a good interpretation just by being African-American.”
But Rauch was struck by the play’s xenophobia, and he wanted to illuminate that issue. Butler created a backstory for the character. He envisioned Othello as a Lost Boy of Sudan, a man who was wrested from his ancestral village as a child, forced to fight a brutal war, then relocated to an unfamiliar country where he had to fit in with cultural and religious norms. “He speaks differently from the other characters,” Butler says. “The way he expresses himself is different.”
Rauch, who previously directed “All the Way” at the ART and on Broadway, is passionate about the choice. “It made tremendous sense to me,’’ he says. “There are so many textual references to the fact that he is not from Venice. We know he has been through dramatic cultural reversals in his life.’’
There are a few minor changes to contemporize the production. Othello is an admiral, not a general. Emilia, the wife of the villain Iago, is not just a servant to Othello’s wife Desdemona, she is also a petty officer in the Navy. And information is sometimes delivered via text. But the script is faithful to Shakespeare, with precise attention paid to every word. Rauch, the three lead actors, and a pair of dramaturgs meticulously went through every line, analyzing the play right down to the punctuation marks. It is “lovingly handcrafted,” Rauch says. “By the time we got to rehearsal, the script had our fingerprints all over it.”
Iago still plants Desdemona’s handkerchief in an unsuspecting ally’s room, convincing Othello that his wife is cheating on him. Women are abused, and men murder their wives. The brutality of it all is draining for Butler, emotionally and physically. “It takes more of a mental toll, having to go to that dark place with some sort of truth,’’ he says. “You have to go deep to acknowledge the inferiority complex that Othello has. He doesn’t feel worthy of the things in his life. He’s not appreciated. And he has to say those horrible things to his wife.”
For Butler, a frequent presence in TV dramas (“The Good Wife” and “Designated Survivor” among them), playing Othello was at the top of his bucket list. But the title role is draining. Oregon Shakespeare Festival performs in rotating repertory, so when he wasn’t playing Othello, he gladly took on a lighter role. “I had a comic part in ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost,’ where I got to sit around and eat cherry pie,’’ he says.
Nothing is sweetened up in the production, though. In addition to bigotry, the misogyny portrayed in “Othello” is stomach-churning, especially at a time when Western culture is finally reckoning with historic and endemic abuse of women at every level of society. “The casual verbal violence and the physical violence is horrifying. The murders are horrifying,’’ Rauch says. “And with the increased awareness of the toxicity of misogyny, it is heavy to watch.”
But Rauch thinks it is also vital. The production aims to draw the audience — and the whole society — into the tragedy. Iago delivers his monologues directly into the house as a way of involving audience members more deeply. And in the end, before the final bloody scene, the actors rotate Desdemona’s bed, as if to say that all of them created a world in which such murders could happen. “It’s an abstract moment to insinuate that everyone is a part of this horrible story and this horrible place,” Butler says. “It makes the audience feel as if it’s a story of now. If you are not an actual participant in racism and misogyny and discrimination, then you are standing by and letting it happen. I don’t think I have ever done a play that has left me so . . .” He pauses. “For lack of a better term, unsatisfied. It is such a dark play that sheds a light on society.”
After Desdemona and Emilia are murdered by their spouses, one character says, “Let it be hid.” But we are living in a time when past atrocities are being unveiled after years of secrecy. And Rauch thinks the unsatisfied feeling that Butler describes is imperative. “An intense three-hour tragedy that examines the destructive impact of how we treat other people is not going to leave anyone who watches it untouched,’’ Rauch says. “There is always so much focus on the pathology of Iago or the gullibility of Othello. But I believe Shakespeare understands social forces. Bias is a social disease. We are not born with bias. It gets bred into us. That is why it is so important to tell a story that examines the corrosive effect of society’s ills on human lives. Man, that makes it worth the effort to dive.”
Produced by Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Presented by American Repertory Theater. At Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge, Jan. 13 to Feb. 9. Tickets from $25, 617-547-8300, www.americanrepertorytheater.org