Anyone who read William Shakespeare in high school knows it’s not an easy task.
Even Shakespeare himself wasn’t reading Shakespeare when he created his early 17th-century tragedy Othello, in which the English poet derived the plot from an Italian tale.
So you can’t blame actor Cortney White for keeping his expectations at a minimum before he performs in his first Shakespearean play today in First Presbyterian Theater’s production of Othello.
I’m just hoping that the audience doesn’t think Cortney White sucks,’ he says, laughing. I just want to be as honest with this character as they expect me to be.
White stars as Othello, a successful general in Venice whose ravenous jealousy eventually consumes his life and marriage.
First Presbyterian Theater, which presents a Shakespearean play every season, is revisiting Othello for the first time since its staging with an all-female cast 14 years ago.
Managing artistic director Thom Hofrichter says the ambitious production in 2000 was his first time directing a Shakespearean play, and this time, he is even more in touch with the core of the story.
I was interested in seeing how much I changed in 15 years. The work hasn’t changed in the past 15 years or the past 400 years, in fact. But it seems different to me, he says.
Scholars say Shakespeare built his play on a tale written by Giovanni Battista Giraldi Cinzio in 1565. The story revolves around a cultural and racial outsider to Venice named Othello, who becomes a valuable general to the Venetian government.
Shakespeare developed Cinzio’s minor villain into a prominent character named Iago, a sly and envious officer who leads the insecure Othello to believe that his wife, Desdemona, is having an affair with his lieutenant, Michael Cassio.
Through a series of carefully constructed entrapments, the vicious rumor leads to fatal results.
What’s different for me this time is that I see more clearly the way a single voice can whisper into society’s ear and twist and pervert human decency, Hofrichter says.
We’re living in a world now where there are people who are whispering things and turning people into monsters, he added.
White says it surprised him to see how easily his character succumbs in the play.
To me, it seems that (Othello) would have just walked up to her and asked. He was broken too easily for someone who seems so strong, he says. But that happens in real life. People sometimes break up easier than you would have expected.
Hofrichter says that after watching White’s performance in Fort Wayne Civic Theatre’s production of A Few Good Men during the 2012-13 season, he was confident that he found an actor who would be able to pull off the headstrong, yet susceptible, Othello.
He had the presence, and he had the voice. That’s probably another reason why this play was tugging at me, he says. The poetry is absolutely gorgeous, and it’s fun to listen to and fun to speak.
Although White is a newcomer to Shakespeare, Hofrichter says that with the right amount of effort, an actor can pick up on the clues that Shakespeare leaves within the poetry.
I do not have a natural talent for poetry, and it was an incredible challenge working on it, Hofrichter says. There are things that are true if you start understanding the meter. The rhythm helps your memorization and helps you know the words that Shakespeare wants you to hit. You get to know when the feeling of the words is harsh, they crackle and when they crackle, someone is not happy.
Some people have a natural bent for it, but it’s definitely something you can learn as well.
Though hesitant at first, White has taken on the challenge. He says he has learned a lot from Hofrichter and from watching his counterpart, Scott Hess, who plays Iago. With both having plenty of experience with Shakespearean acting, there is always someone available to help.
It’s been difficult, but Thom is a really good director, and he helps me to better understand what’s going on. There’s so much work going on in the language, and I’m getting there, but it requires a lot of work, he says. I’ve been breaking it down sentence for sentence, word for word. You just have to keep doing it over and over again.