Martinez Takes on Classic, Tragic Hero

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Jack Stehlin and A Martinez in Othello Co-production of The Odyssey Theatre Ensemble and The New American Theatre

When Malibu actor A Martinez appeared in Athol Fugard’s “Blood Knot” at The Malibu Playhouse last year, he received rave reviews for his performance in this searing drama that examines race and family loyalty. This year, he is taking on another play that has many of the same themes, along with a 400-year history of legendary performances to live up to: Shakespeare’s “Othello.” 

A co-production of the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble and The New American Theatre, and directed by John Perrin Flynn, this version of the Elizabethan-era classic tragedy has been set as a modern day psychodrama in a story that could be ripped from the headlines. 

“Our ‘Othello’ is on a modern day army base and is very much about military life,” Martinez said. “The parallels are powerful.” 

Othello’s tragic events are set in motion when Othello, commander of the Venetian army, makes the charismatic Cassio his lieutenant, bypassing Iago, a higher-ranking officer, for promotion. Iago, a longtime field soldier with Othello, is overwhelmed with envy and rage at the military slight — Cassio has never seen battle. Social order, racial politics and the stress of a soldier’s life combine to push Iago — one of Shakespeare’s greatest and most complex villains — over the edge as he conspires to destroy Othello and his young wife, Desdemona. 

As Othello is a “Moor,” the character has traditionally been played by a black actor (or a white actor wearing dark makeup), and is very much an outsider, despite his stellar military career. To director Flynn, it’s a dramatic dynamic that could easily play out in the Middle East of today. 

“‘Othello’ is set on an army base in occupied territory,” Flynn said. “The Venetians conquered Cypress from the Turks. When we put Shakespeare’s characters in contemporary uniform, we suddenly recognize this as a story about military life and what that life can do to someone. We live in the same world today, we still deal with the same issues. 

“‘Othello’ remains relevant because nothing has changed,” Flynn continued. “Shakespeare had such a modern understanding of how people interrelate.” 

After last year’s theatrical foray, Martinez was not looking for another play to consume him. He had just directed a short film involving the contributions of his entire family, titled “Before Your Eyes.” The idea was to produce a scene from a feature length script he had written, and shop it at film festivals in hopes of snaring a producer for the longer version of the story. 

But he ran into Flynn, who had seen Martinez’s performance in “Blood Knot” and immediately was offered the role. Martinez was struck by the humanity and conflict of the character in the face of wartime demands. 

“Othello is a Moor, an alien to the Venetian elites who hire him,” Martinez said. “But he’s a warrior with a great track record, so they employ him for one last campaign. Playing this role is a huge privilege.” 

Much of the story pivots on Othello’s relationship with his new, much younger wife and his perception (planted by a scheming Iago) of her betrayal. As Martinez pointed out, nothing in Othello’s hard career prepared him for love, and the brutality of his nature combined with the military assuredness of all his decisions make for tragic consequences. 

“He is a champion brought low by his own vulnerability,” Martinez said. 

Flynn, a longtime film and theatre director who won the L.A. Weekly Award for Career Achievement in Theatre, was attracted to the play on a very personal level. He grew up in a military family and served himself. He saw this play as one of not just jealousy and revenge, but of the battlefield bonding that happens between soldiers in combat and the unique psychology that overtakes men living in a green zone like that of Iraq. 

Flynn was also keen to present “Othello” in modern day dress, saying, “It’s different to see actors in pantaloons versus guys wearing military fatigues and carrying semiautomatic weapons. It removes that idea of ‘classic.’ Mostly, I hope it opens people up to the idea of why Shakespeare is alive and relevant 400 years on.” 

“Othello” plays at the Odyssey Theatre October 24 through December 14. For more information, call 310.477.2055 ext. 2 or visit www.OdysseyTheatre.com.