Modernizing Shakespeare is not a new idea. Orson Welles first emerged onto the popular culture radar back in the 1930s by offering the classic stories in modern dress.
But, when you put stage-bound Shakespeare on a Harley-Davidson, now you’re talking something new.
Just as Sons of Anarchy took Hamlet into the 21st Century on the leather-clad backs of cruiser motorcycles, The Milwaukee Repertory Theater partnered up with Harley to mount a modern production of Othello. Harley-Davidson cruisers adorn multiple scenes during the show as Milwaukee’s own bike maker allowed the production to pour through company stores and pick whatever bikes they wanted for the stage show.
Moving the story out of Venice and Cyprus, director (and Rep Artistic Director) Mark Clements introduced American biker gangs into the narrative. The production is set amongst riding leathers and ugly urban sets of brick and beam. But, the language is untouched as every word of Shakespeare’s original text is there.
Lindsay Smiling stars as the ill-fated title character – the brave general who is done in by his poor judge of character in his friends, his inexperience with love, his natural tendency to jealousy and the deadly sin of pride. Mattie Hawkinson plays Desdemona, Othello’s doomed wife.
But, as often happens in one of Shakespeare’s best and most unusual plays, the villainous Iago steals the show. Played with casual, yet kinetic joy by Rep member Gerald Neugent. Often speaking in friendly asides with the audience, Neugent manages to portray his lies and plots with sincerity and intellectual satisfaction.
Warning: I’m about to take a detour into an unusual realm for describing a Shakespearian performance. But, for those familiar with the modern world of professional wrestling, Neugent bears a striking resemblance to current star C.M. Punk. From his voice to his mannerisms, Neugent could be Punk in a beard plotting the downfall of a Moor General.
Why bring that up? It gives the sports entertainment fans amongst our motorcycle readers a good picture of Neugent’s national stage-worthy performance. Just as Punk is intense, though easy during his speeches, Neugent’s Iago has all of the charisma of a veteran in-ring heel. He’s confident to a fault and joyfully committed to his evil deeds. As all great villains must be, he feels entirely justified in his revenge against Othello, and he turns that vengeance into an art form.
As for the biker element in the show, it’s not just a gimmick to play off of while a traditional tragedy plays out on the boards. The occasional Harley harkens the arrival of approaching characters. Motorcycle headlamps illuminate the stage during battle scenes. The familiar grumble of V-Twin power plants blends with the hard, metallic music filling the silence between scenes.
More importantly, the historic brutality and harsh, tribal philosophies of biker culture works well in the violent, militaristic world of Othello. As beautiful and artistic as a well-appointed Harley-Davidson cruiser can be, it is a powerful machine that becomes a dangerous tool and symbol in the hands of naturally violent men like Othello and bitter schemers like Iago.
Othello will run another week in MIlwaukee. Any reader and bike enthusiast within a day’s ride of the Rep next to the Pabst Theater in downtown Milwaukee should make a pilgrimage to this rare theatrical creation.