There's a new version of Shakespeare's "Othello."
Set in the gangland world in 1968, it has a film noir style and the punchy tagline “Arise, black vengeance.”
Although the production has a stylish trailer (see it on www.youtube.com), it’s not a new film but the latest offering from Theater Artists Olympia.
“Think Shakespeare meets ‘Goodfellas,’ ” said Robert McConkey, who is directing the production. “That’s what we’re doing.”
Why turn Shakespeare’s soldiers into gang members? It was simply a matter of logic for McConkey, who directed the company’s “Poona” in December.
“One of the problems I have when I see modernized Shakespeare is that people don’t necessarily jump to the quick conclusions and the quick responses that they did 400 years ago,” he said. “In what world is it believable that the response to everything is ‘Oh, I’m going to kill him?’
“I have a hard time buying into a corporate America ‘Hamlet’ where Hamlet decides he’s going to kill his uncle,” he added. “It’s not a logical step, but it’s a completely logical step in the ’60s gangland world.”
The video shows a gun, at least one knife and lots of fisticuffs, but the production steers clear of graphic violence, said Christina Collins, who made the video and who plays Emilia, the wife of Iago, in the show.
“There’s a lot of fighting and killing,” she said, “but it’s not gory, and it’s not sensational. It’s not bloody.”
The production does share the video’s intensity, and its cinematic quality, however.
“When I came up with this concept, my thought was that I wanted to make it like a gangster movie,” McConkey said. “It opens with opening credits.”
The credits are on a video set to Frank Sinatra’s “This Town.”
“We go through all these images of New York City, of Vietnam, of the women’s rights movement, of the civil-rights movement, and dispersed throughout the song are the names of all of the actors.”
The production’s nods to popular culture aren’t just stylish: They’re a way to draw in a crowd that might not have an interest in Shakespeare.
“A guy I work with was asking me about Shakespeare one day,” the director said. “He said, ‘I thought it was all about kings and queens and knights and chivalry and stuff like that.’
“I said, ‘There are plenty of stories that involve those kinds of characters, but it’s like watching ‘The West Wing’ or ‘24,’ where you have these big characters. Those were the big characters of the time.’ ”
While McConkey moved the show to a new era and edited it (a process that took six to eight months), the language is all Shakespeare’s.
“It’s one of Shakespeare’s longer shows; it’s about four hours,” he said. “The version we’re doing is just over two hours.
“It seems like every scene has a recap of what just happened, and I cut all of that out. And I wanted someone who’d never seen Shakespeare before to be able to sit down and watch it and understand it and so I tried to work on getting rid of some of the double negatives and stuff like that.”
Even the catchphrase “arise, black vengeance” is from the original play.
“You probably would not remember it as being a really notable line, but because of the context of this production, it’s more memorable,” Collins said. “We knew it was a little edgy when we decided to put it on the poster and on the video. It’s really provocative in the right way.”