A rustic pavilion and the surrounding greenery of Memorial Park provide ample fur trade era atmosphere for this Cree-Métis re-imagining of Shakespeare’s Othello. Here, Shakespeare In Action presents director Lisa Nasson’s very earthy staging of PJ Prudat’s otîhêw. Despite some persistent sound glitches, this is a throughly persuasive production.
The vivid lyricism is established early on as the ensemble, suggesting an intimate connection to the earth, describe roiling magma desperate to burst forth. It does, sending volcanic sediment into the air and obscuring the sun. And so our story begins, set along the Saskatchewan river of 1816—the year of no summer. In this time of darkness and pestilence, small pox, colonial oppression and a harsh way-of-life are ever-present.
The racial tension at the core of Othello is a defining aspect of this story too, though it evocatively blurs the lines with its examination of mixed-race friction. otîhêw (Nicole Joy-Fraser), the gender-swapped stand-in for Othello, is a half Scottish-half Métis woman serving as leader of a community of people in a factory fort. Her husband, Desmond (Spencer Bennet), an Afro-Indigenous man, works as a surveyor and his close ties to the colonial-industrial complex marks him as white within the eyes of otîhêw’s resentful brother, Hamish (Jonathon LeRose).
The trusting and deeply harmonious relationship between otîhêw and Desmond is the strong yet vulnerable beating heart of this story. Joy-Fraser and Bennet exude a very natural, human majesty and, together, they are a compelling portrait of sensuality and mutual admiration. This makes it all the more devastating when their palpable bond is threatened.
With an Elizabethan ruff theatrically removing him from the period, Hamish stands out as an explicit reference to the story’s Shakespearean source. He is the Iago here—the manipulative, spiteful antagonist. Attempting to drive a wedge of distrust between otîhêw and Desmond, he sets in motion a series of events that lead her to believe that Desmond—in collusion with colonial forces—has betrayed her.
His smarmy persona and vile intentions are suitably repugnant, though Prudat and LeRose eventually reveal a very human weakness that leads him towards this deceitful and destructive bid for power. We eventually see the ache that propels him into his selfish—and ultimately self-damaging—quest.
Jewell Bowry, Brefny Caribou, and Raymond Johnson-Brown fill out this community and offer up committed, resonant performances. Clay & Paper Theatre have provided a set of four adorable dog puppets that the cast handle with whimsical dexterity. These dogs are a vital part of this community, aware of the shifting power dynamics and engaged in their own petty squabbles.
This version of the tale concludes on a note of hope and healing. The final moments are truly arresting—taking us from a harrowing disruption of harmonious existence to a place of healing and restoration. And this warm promise of reparative love and understanding feels properly earned.