Othella turns Shakepeare’s classic into a modern tale with a gender bend

WhatsOn Mar 31, 2016 by Gary Smith Hamilton Spectator

So what's a female engineer doing rewriting Shakespeare's Othello? Giving it a gender reversal of course.

Esther Huh didn't exactly grow up loving theatre.

"I was too pragmatic, I suppose. I was always a mathematical thinker. Maybe that's why music appealed to me more than acting. After getting my engineering degree I went to Sheridan … to study musical theatre. I guess there were two different things racing round my brain.

"I always loved Shakespeare. In a sense he combined the two elements I found fascinating. There was the drama of his stories, of course, but there was also the brick by brick plotting that made his plays so sound.

"I especially loved Othello. Something about that role just clicked with me. Of course there are more male roles in Shakespeare's plays than female ones. I always thought that needed to be put right," she laughs.

So, Esther Huh has given Othello a gender flip. But when it comes down to it, she's done more than that. She's set the play in a modern high school where emotions and hormones run high. And she's made her Othella a sexy cheerleader.

"Think of the film 'Mean Girls,'" she says, "and you're on to what I'm after.

"Bullying is at the centre of Shakespeare's play and that's certainly something that happens with young women. Today it's worse than ever, given the uses of Twitter and Facebook and all those social media outlets for expression. In my version, Othella is manipulated by a young woman named Amy. She's my female version of Iago."

Huh admits it took a lot of thinking to make everything work in her gender reversal look at things. For one thing, setting the play in the present day meant making some obvious changes.

"I've removed the handkerchief, for instance, and replaced it with a hoodie. It seems to make more sense. A handkerchief just doesn't have the same significance for contemporary audiences," Huh says.

"It's about giving the play a new life in a different time. My hope, in fact, is that my version will one day have a life touring high schools so it can make its point in a new way."

Huh realizes there are a number of serious issues that need to be addressed in moving Othello into a new time and setting.

"There's the issue of acting in black face, for instance," Huh suggests. "It may have seemed fine for Laurence Olivier to play the character in black makeup 50 years ago, but it's not today. The play calls for total honesty. It's not just having a white actor adds an element of racism. It takes away from the play's essential drama."

So what about changing the character's gender?

"That works just fine," Huh says. "Reversing genders may be startling, but it leaves everything else in the play the same. It's still a play about jealousy, manipulation, hubris and human frailty. It's possible for a woman to have the same faults, the same powers and the same ability to be duped as a man can be. The fact the character is a woman doesn't introduce something false but having a white actor play Othello in black face certainly does."

To heighten the drama Huh has cut the play's long list of characters to six.

"There are times missing secondary characters are played by text messages. That isn't just to save the number of actors involved, it's to allow the play a modern take."

Will all audience members like Huh's changes? Probably not. But you've got to admit this Othello redux does allow for some intriguing possibilities.

Gary Smith has written on theatre and dance for The Hamilton Spectator for more than 30 years.

Othella turns Shakepeare’s classic into a modern tale with a gender bend

WhatsOn Mar 31, 2016 by Gary Smith Hamilton Spectator

So what's a female engineer doing rewriting Shakespeare's Othello? Giving it a gender reversal of course.

Esther Huh didn't exactly grow up loving theatre.

"I was too pragmatic, I suppose. I was always a mathematical thinker. Maybe that's why music appealed to me more than acting. After getting my engineering degree I went to Sheridan … to study musical theatre. I guess there were two different things racing round my brain.

"I always loved Shakespeare. In a sense he combined the two elements I found fascinating. There was the drama of his stories, of course, but there was also the brick by brick plotting that made his plays so sound.

"I especially loved Othello. Something about that role just clicked with me. Of course there are more male roles in Shakespeare's plays than female ones. I always thought that needed to be put right," she laughs.

So, Esther Huh has given Othello a gender flip. But when it comes down to it, she's done more than that. She's set the play in a modern high school where emotions and hormones run high. And she's made her Othella a sexy cheerleader.

"Think of the film 'Mean Girls,'" she says, "and you're on to what I'm after.

"Bullying is at the centre of Shakespeare's play and that's certainly something that happens with young women. Today it's worse than ever, given the uses of Twitter and Facebook and all those social media outlets for expression. In my version, Othella is manipulated by a young woman named Amy. She's my female version of Iago."

Huh admits it took a lot of thinking to make everything work in her gender reversal look at things. For one thing, setting the play in the present day meant making some obvious changes.

"I've removed the handkerchief, for instance, and replaced it with a hoodie. It seems to make more sense. A handkerchief just doesn't have the same significance for contemporary audiences," Huh says.

"It's about giving the play a new life in a different time. My hope, in fact, is that my version will one day have a life touring high schools so it can make its point in a new way."

Huh realizes there are a number of serious issues that need to be addressed in moving Othello into a new time and setting.

"There's the issue of acting in black face, for instance," Huh suggests. "It may have seemed fine for Laurence Olivier to play the character in black makeup 50 years ago, but it's not today. The play calls for total honesty. It's not just having a white actor adds an element of racism. It takes away from the play's essential drama."

So what about changing the character's gender?

"That works just fine," Huh says. "Reversing genders may be startling, but it leaves everything else in the play the same. It's still a play about jealousy, manipulation, hubris and human frailty. It's possible for a woman to have the same faults, the same powers and the same ability to be duped as a man can be. The fact the character is a woman doesn't introduce something false but having a white actor play Othello in black face certainly does."

To heighten the drama Huh has cut the play's long list of characters to six.

"There are times missing secondary characters are played by text messages. That isn't just to save the number of actors involved, it's to allow the play a modern take."

Will all audience members like Huh's changes? Probably not. But you've got to admit this Othello redux does allow for some intriguing possibilities.

Gary Smith has written on theatre and dance for The Hamilton Spectator for more than 30 years.

Othella turns Shakepeare’s classic into a modern tale with a gender bend

WhatsOn Mar 31, 2016 by Gary Smith Hamilton Spectator

So what's a female engineer doing rewriting Shakespeare's Othello? Giving it a gender reversal of course.

Esther Huh didn't exactly grow up loving theatre.

"I was too pragmatic, I suppose. I was always a mathematical thinker. Maybe that's why music appealed to me more than acting. After getting my engineering degree I went to Sheridan … to study musical theatre. I guess there were two different things racing round my brain.

"I always loved Shakespeare. In a sense he combined the two elements I found fascinating. There was the drama of his stories, of course, but there was also the brick by brick plotting that made his plays so sound.

"I especially loved Othello. Something about that role just clicked with me. Of course there are more male roles in Shakespeare's plays than female ones. I always thought that needed to be put right," she laughs.

So, Esther Huh has given Othello a gender flip. But when it comes down to it, she's done more than that. She's set the play in a modern high school where emotions and hormones run high. And she's made her Othella a sexy cheerleader.

"Think of the film 'Mean Girls,'" she says, "and you're on to what I'm after.

"Bullying is at the centre of Shakespeare's play and that's certainly something that happens with young women. Today it's worse than ever, given the uses of Twitter and Facebook and all those social media outlets for expression. In my version, Othella is manipulated by a young woman named Amy. She's my female version of Iago."

Huh admits it took a lot of thinking to make everything work in her gender reversal look at things. For one thing, setting the play in the present day meant making some obvious changes.

"I've removed the handkerchief, for instance, and replaced it with a hoodie. It seems to make more sense. A handkerchief just doesn't have the same significance for contemporary audiences," Huh says.

"It's about giving the play a new life in a different time. My hope, in fact, is that my version will one day have a life touring high schools so it can make its point in a new way."

Huh realizes there are a number of serious issues that need to be addressed in moving Othello into a new time and setting.

"There's the issue of acting in black face, for instance," Huh suggests. "It may have seemed fine for Laurence Olivier to play the character in black makeup 50 years ago, but it's not today. The play calls for total honesty. It's not just having a white actor adds an element of racism. It takes away from the play's essential drama."

So what about changing the character's gender?

"That works just fine," Huh says. "Reversing genders may be startling, but it leaves everything else in the play the same. It's still a play about jealousy, manipulation, hubris and human frailty. It's possible for a woman to have the same faults, the same powers and the same ability to be duped as a man can be. The fact the character is a woman doesn't introduce something false but having a white actor play Othello in black face certainly does."

To heighten the drama Huh has cut the play's long list of characters to six.

"There are times missing secondary characters are played by text messages. That isn't just to save the number of actors involved, it's to allow the play a modern take."

Will all audience members like Huh's changes? Probably not. But you've got to admit this Othello redux does allow for some intriguing possibilities.

Gary Smith has written on theatre and dance for The Hamilton Spectator for more than 30 years.