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Fashion Marches On

June 7, 2015

OTHELLO@ZJU_PostcardBestUnexpected Unbridled Laughter is truly cathartic. Catharsis was gifted to me recently at Zombie Joe’s Undergound Theatre.

Like all of Shakespeare’s works, as long as the central story remains, substitutions can be made. Settings changed, themes added to run parallel to the main story, characters motives altered. Sometimes these alterations miss, other times they fit like well designed fashion. Or haute couture, speaking of haute couture, that is one of the spins place on this version of Othello.

Othello leads his army on the runways of Pairs and Milan; where paparazzi are as dangerous as missed stitches. This twist alone would be enough to make Othello a night full of laughter; it’s not, alone that is. There are a few more, Othello is portrayed by the talented Vanessa Cate. The role isn’t gender swapped, it doesn’t need to be. Vanessa plays the part of a strong and stern Othello as well as any other actor or actress. This is also a musical after a fashion. Josh T Ryan (adapation and direction) fills the scenes with songs that echo the moods he is painting with. His song choices add depth, clarity, and laughter to his interpretation of The Bard.OTHELLO@ZJU_VincentCusimano_VanessaCate_KristenBenjamin

Josh also attempted and succeeded in making the audience uncomfortable. Profoundly uncomfortable for many in attendance. I have seen many shows at ZJU, and I don’t think I’ve ever been in an audience more uncomfortable at times than this. This uncomfortable atmosphere is a testament to Josh’s vision, considering ZJU needs buy blood at bulk discount rates. There wasn’t even a drop of blood in Othello, red rags were used to simulate gushing blood.

It might say something about me that I thoroughly enjoyed the discomfort of the guy sitting next to me. He kept looking back to one scene and shaking his head like “it’s still going on”. I enjoyed seeing his reaction, as well as the rest of the audience’s, on a visceral level.

There are two more twists to this tale. This version of Othello is an LBGT and BDSM version. Through the lens of both worlds Josh projects such dark humour your sides will hurt.

Each character added something unique and tangible to the story, but Honest Iago (Vincent Cusimano) stole the show. I don’t want to give away too much of his performance, but it was powerful, as well as the source of much discomfort from the audience. I’ll never look at Alan Cumming the same again.

OTHELLO@ZJU_VincentCusimano_VanessaCateWhen you add so many emotionally, physically charged twists to a story the actors must pull from deep within to portray their characters. I’ve seen many of these actors on stage before, and I’ve never seen them transform as much as they did in Othello. They walk the razor’s edge between serious and funny; sexy, sensuous and naive. This naiveté is needed of course for Iago to play them all like puppets. Their stronger traits are there for us to relate to. Their loyalty, their courage, their strength, all things one wouldn’t think open them to manipulation. This is of course how Iago worms his way into their collective trust.

As I said many of the jokes are dark, like so much black silk to wrap ourselves in. The sensuous jokes which cozy up to us are punctuated by the plunge of those that break the fourth wall. The timing of the fourth wall breaks are perfect. Just as you are lulled into the story, you’re smacked upside the head. Never relax around Iago, that’s your undoing.

I’m purposely being vague as to as much of the goings on in this version. I think it’s something everyone should experience for themselves raw and unfiltered as I did on opening night. I can say, picture the most on the nose aspects of the worlds of Fashion, LGBT, and BDSM, and you have an idea. Josh weaves these elements together in a way that makes these stereotypes all the more sharp, and intelligent. They aren’t the blunted jokes one finds in memes and political rags. They are wit, pure and distilled.

I’ve spoken much of Iago, but in truth there would be no Iago without an Othello. Vanessa made Othello hers, body and soul. Whenever she appears on stage I couldn’t help but smile. Her portrayal more honest than Iago pretends to be. Towards the end, when her musical number won’t end, at a certain point, it’s as if the audience doesn’t want it to end either. It’s as if the role were meant for her, and she for it. Speaking of things meant for Vanessa, this is a runway model take on Othello. There would be no need for a runway without fashions custome fit to the characters. So much Haute Couture designed by the wonderful Jeri Batzdorff. Vanessa had to go through at least seven or eight outfit changes thought out this piece. Each outfit more amazing than the last.

Othello could neither exist without his army, his trusted companions. The world loves Othello, and he it. The retinue with which Othello surrounds himself seems perfectly cast. From Hannah Mosqueda making Roderigo seem fierce, yet adorable and endearing. Quinn Knox made Cassio seem strong, yet confused, and Kirsten Benjamin made Desdemona a loyal and loving companion to Ohtello, a lover entirely cloaked in Othello’s universe, like so much haute couture. Anna Gion comes close to being able to control Iago as his wife Emilia. The introduction of Sebastian Munoz as a paparazzi serves as an anchor for the audience. Present almost through the entirety of the show, he adds both mirth, and a sense of intrusiveness into the lives unfolding on stage. It’s a sharp and humorous decision that lets you know the fourth wall will come down from time to time.


If you’re looking to spend the night laughing, as well as your drive home, this version of Othello is right for you.

Othello (Written by Shakespeare, Adapted/ Directed by Josh T. Ryan) runs Fidays and Saturdays at 8:30pm thorugh June 27th at Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre.

For more information please visit

Photo Credit: Josh T. Ryan.

Don’t forget to check out Zombie Joe’s Underground Fringe. I’ve heard that Don Juan has had a cast alteration, and a few tweaks that I’m dying to see.


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