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San José Stage’s Noir Othello Boils and Burns

Strap in for a wild ride. San Joe Stage’s Othello, directed by Kenneth Kelleher, hits the ground running and never lets up. Kelleher has cut the show to a trim two and a half hours, which keeps the action fast-paced and the audience on the edges of their seats.

Those who prefer their Shakespeare with conventional staging shouldn’t be put off by the Stage’s noir movie setting, with classic jazz accompaniment, of Othello.

Every one of the actors delivers such a polished performance, with pitch perfect timing, that at no time do you wonder why people in modern dress are speaking Elizabethan English (something that frequently grips me when watching unconventional staging of classical theater).


The noir metaphor is apt for Othello. Despite the four centuries that separate them, the psychopathic world of Othello shares a lot with The Killer Inside Me.* The noir ambiance is reinforced by Jean Cardinale’s costumes, inspired by the skinny suits and ties of the 1960s.

Othello is the story of a Moorish (i.e. likely African) general in the Venetian army who elopes with the much younger and aristocratic Desdemona, who marries him for love.

The couple are reconciled with her father before they leave for Cyprus, where Othello has been ordered. Othello’s ensign, Iago, hates Othello for passing him over for a promotion and conceives a revenge plan to goad Othello to a frenzy of sexual jealousy, by making it appear that Desdemona is having an affair with Othello’s lieutenant Cassio.

Lashed into a blind and murderous rage, Othello strangles Desdemona only to discover from Iago’s wife that Iago contrived the entire scheme. Iago murders his wife, Othello murders Iago and ends the tragedy by killing himself.

Aldo Billingslea’s Othello is a pressure cooker of insecurity, suspicion, and rage that will explode in murderous tragedy. His Othello is a man who has achieved power and success in a world where he’s an outsider. But inside he seethes with suspicion that those who flatter him openly secretly despise him and that even his wife sees him as less than fully a man.

Johnny Moreno’s Iago is a fiendish emcee from the moment he appears on stage crooning “That Old Black Magic” and delivering his transcendently vulgar (albeit Elizabethan vulgarity) announcement of Desdemona’s elopement. Moreno’s Iago produces the show and plays the leading role in this revenge farce, with Othello as the butt of the joke — all with masterfully delivered commentary, sometimes sung and sometimes even danced by the versatile Moreno.

Toxic Masculinity

For Billingslea, a Santa Clara resident and longtime drama professor at Santa Clara University, the play is an essay in toxic masculinity.

“This is a very male-centric play,” he said. “Othello is a powerful man among men, and he trusts the word of his soldier more than his wife. The world of Othello illuminates the damage that this toxic masculinity can do.”

He added that the world of midcentury jazz and noir were similar male-dominated worlds; where, as in the world of Othello, women had low status.

Part of what drives Billingslea is a mission to tell Shakespeare’s stories in ways that reach people who think Shakespeare is ponderous and irrelevant.

“There are those who feel Shakespeare is too elite, too hard to understand,” he said. It’s the actor’s job to “make it understandable, to deliver the verse and make it natural.”

At this, San Joe Stage’s Othello cast hits a home run.

Othello by William Shakespeare runs through June 25. The play isn’t appropriate for children. Visit for tickets. Some discount tickets are available at To listen to one jazz composer’s take on the Immortal Bard, check out Duke Ellington’s suite Such Sweet Thunder, on Shakespeare’s plays and characters.

*The Killer Inside Me’s author, pulp writer Jim Thompson (1906 – 1977) was dubbed “the dime store Dostoyevsky.”


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