Shakespeare Comes to SJU as “Othello'” Hits the Little Theater

In college theatre, opening night is sometimes little more than a dress rehearsal with an audience. Nothing could be further from the truth in the Chappell Players current work, Shakespeare’s “Othello: the Moor of Venice,” which was marked by fabulous acting performances and an intriguing set.

Junior Chad Cunningham as Othello and Senior Raj Singh as Iago provided the plays most memorable scenes at the show’s opening on Oct. 18.

The play was highlighted by the chemistry of the two actors as Iago leads Othello down the path of deception. The scenes in which “honest” Iago offered his insincere advice to the general Othello are where the talents of the two young actors truly came through.

“It was a long time coming with those lines,” Cunningham said. “It was just me and Raj coming to common hour everyday with the script. We have great chemistry, I can’t say enough about the kid.”

The play marks the St. John’s debut of professional director Marshall Mays of the Kaleidoscope Theater in New York. In August, Mays was hired and began production on the Shakespeare classic after previously working with Chappell Players president and producer William Cusick. Because of his trust in Cusick and his love for the play, Mays was eager to direct at St. John’s.

“It has great sword fights, lots of passion and some really funny moments,” Mays said. “It’s a really good show. There’s a reason this play has been done for 400 years.”

Last year, the Chappell Players decided to perform Othello and both Cusick and assistant director James Farrarella took active roles in putting the show together. Cusick’s production was tightly wound and he was impressed to watch it develop from casting in August to one of the Chappell Players’ finer productions.

“I’ve watched [the actors] from going around carrying scripts to this excellent performance,” he said. “I can’t give the actors enough credit. It certainly surpassed my expectations.”

Farrarella said that he was impressed by the professional work of the director that Cusick hired.

“The opportunity to direct with Marshall was unbelievable,” he said. “This was my first time directing and he taught me so much.”

In a play that focuses on deception, jealousy and the unconditional pursuit of power, Singh was able to use his cold demeanor to chillingly bring Iago to the brink of his goal. Singh was at his best during monologues to the audience where you actually see the true Iago, and these moments only enhance the rest of the play in which he seemingly shows a compelling compassion for the other characters.

“It was totally dynamite,” Singh said. “Tomorrow we’ll be a little stronger and there will be more energy. Each show will get better.”

Other performances by TaraFawn Marek (Desdemona), Morgan Douglas (Emilia) and Jonathan Scheiman (Michael Cassio) were also impressive. As Chappell Players vice president, Marek has been involved in numerous performances in the Little Theater and as Desdemona she continued her excellent work.

“Tara’s very passionate,” assistant director James Ferrarella said. “She exudes this sexiness in her character.” She portrayed her character well throughout the play, but after she became the victim of Iago’s deception her acting took on a larger presence.

Scheiman, most notably of the men’s basketball team, excelled in his first performance for the Chappell Players, despite the challenge of Shakespeare and his inexperience.

“He told me this is the first show he’s done since second grade,” said Mays, “and he is just wonderful. He really impressed me with the way he worked with the text and studied the part.”

As Michael Cassio, who is perceived to be romantically involved with Desdemona, Scheiman delivers his complex lines and maintains the role’s personality. In a scene in which Othello breaks up a drunken sword fight, Scheiman showed great nonverbal ability as he portrayed his remorse.

“I went to an art school so I’m used to performing,” Scheiman said. “I never read the play before, but a lot of it is reading the text and having Marshall help me work it until I got it together.”

According to Cusick, the appearance of the numerous first-time actors, such as Scheiman and Craig Smith as Lodovico, are the next in a series of improvements to the Chappell Players.

“I am pleased beyond my expectations,” Cusick said. “We have matured in the four years I have been a student at St. John’s and hopefully will continue to mature.”

The set and costumes both added tremendously to the performance of all the actors. Professional set designer WT McRae and Cusick put together the set, which featured a variety of levels for the actors to play out scenes and a chaotic red and black color scheme that did much to promote the dualistic nature of the play and the moral conflict between Iago and Othello. The archways featured in the side stage walls were the routine entrances and exits for the actors and helped give a classic Shakespearean mood. The lighting, which was done by Pamela Kupper, also accelerated the mood and she showed her expertise that has previously been used on Broadway in “Cabaret,” “Kiss Me Kate” and “Little Me.”

The costumes for all the characters helped to give the play a professional feel, especially those of Othello and the senators who served as the law in the play. Cusick gave the go-ahead to costume designer James Crochet to buy a $250 white coat for Lodovico, and it turned out to be worth the cost as the look provided a lot of extra strength to the character.

With three shows left on Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., “Othello” will surely build off its opening day success and only continue to get better. In its first try at Shakespeare in two years, the Chappell Players have surely proved that it can transform classical training into an excellent show.