Over the past year and a half I’ve spent writing for OffOffOnline, I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing some of the best (and worst) that off- and off-off-Broadway theatre has had to offer. From the thrilling to just plain disappointing, it’s safe to say the future of theatre pretty much runs the gamut. Fortunately, there’s been more good than bad, and of the two categories, I’m glad to say that the people at TITAN Theatre Company certainly fall under the former. I first came across TITAN when I covered their first mounting of A Midsummer Night’s Dream back in October of 2013 — the review of which, in fact, was my inaugural one for the online publication. Since then, every trip back to TITAN has been like stepping into a dream itself; for to venture into a TITAN production is to step into a world where classic literary characters are played by a different actor each night, brandishing guns and perhaps even donning Doc Martens or the occasional power suit (as Shakespearean characters are often wont to do, natch).
The Queens, New York-based collective got their humble start in 2009 when, in the basement of a Tex-Mex restaurant, co-founders (and spouses) Lenny Banovez and Laura Frye — along with producer Kevin Beebee — decided to put on a few Shakespeare productions with their friends. What resulted was an idea for a theatre company which would breathe new life into classic works, as well as an unintentional signature for “modernizing” Shakespearean plays.
In anticipation for their upcoming, entirely female-led production of Othello (insert gratuitous amounts of exclamation points here), I had the pleasure of sitting down with both Banovez and Frye last month at Long Island City eatery LIC Market, talking about all things TITAN, from The Bard to The Moor, and everything in between. Here’s how it went down.
The Resident Artist [RA]: So yeah, let’s get to Othello…!
Lenny Banovez [LB], TITAN artistic director and co-founder: Oh, we’re so excited. [Laughs] So excited.
RA: When you guys said “all-female,” I was like, “I’m so gonna be there!” It’s funny because Othello is the Shakespeare [play] I’m least familiar with, so let me just ask you what spurred on the idea of wanting to do an all-female production? It’s sort of known for its masculinity and all of that; is it the dichotomy between the masculine and feminine, is it the themes of gender equality and how females can be just as fallible and agent as men?
LB: Well, the fun thing about it, before we get into how a girl would approach a male role… it’s really interesting — and everybody always expects what I call the “artsy” response — the reason I really wanted to do it, and you kind of answered it, was for two reasons. The first one, and the main reason, is that we have so many talented women. Like, we have a surplus of talented women. And we do Shakespeare. I mean, we were known for adding women to male roles, like she’s [motions to Frye next to him] played Tybalt, and we’ve had–
RA: And in Midsummer.
LB: Yeah, we’ve had people cross, you know — flipping [roles] and all that. But I’ve always felt since we’ve started — and our first show, we did Macbeth, we had a girl play Lenox, and we called her Lady Lenox.
RA: Oh, wow.
LB: Yeah. So, from the very beginning, it was because we had so many talented women. And then Mark Rylance, who I love, did the all-male Twelfth Night, and I remember my first initial reaction to it was, “That’s just what we all need, is more all-male,” you know? Doing two great plays that had all these great female characters and it’s great, the shows were great — we saw both and it was great. But the main reason we did it was we had so many talented actresses and we wanted to show them off. Then the by-product of that is all the things you were talking about. It’s an extremely masculine play. So, that’s another reason we chose Othello. I mean, this is by no means a new idea. You know? They just did an all-female Julius Caesar last year in Brooklyn, but we see that a lot, a lot of female Caesars going around because of the political aspect.
LB: But this one: jealousy, lust, betrayal…all these great things that are thought “masculine,” we’re now gonna throw the female level on top of it. And you’ll get all those by-product things, you know? All we’re doing is just changing the pronouns, so they aren’t “women playing men,” they’re just playing. So, those are all amazing by-products of that one idea. Everybody always goes, “Oh, so you’re doing an all-female Othello?” and I go, “No, I’m doing Othello with an all-female cast.” And they’re like, “So you’re doing an all-female Othello.” I go, “No. I’m doing Othello with an all-female cast.” It’s like [what we did] with Midsummer — no matter what kind of wrapping paper you want to put on it, you have to do a no-holds-barred Othello. We have to deliver a play, otherwise, it’s like, “What are you doing?” But it’s gonna be interesting. And that’s why I’m directing. They go, “Well, why don’t you find a female director?” I go, “No.” It’s a masculine play. Talking to the fight director, he goes, “So what, you wanna do catfights and all that?” And I’m like, “No!” [Laughs] You know what I mean?
RA: Yeah. I mean, it could turn out to be comical.
LB: And I go, “Brutal. I want it to be brutal.” And he did the fight choreography for Lear, so I was like, “Take Lear and multiply it times ten.” And they’re gonna want to try to find something wrong with it, so go all the way and go as far as you can.
RA: So, from an acting perspective, I guess I should turn to you, Laura…
Laura Frye [LF], TITAN resident actor and co-founder: Well, I’ve had the fortune of playing male roles primarily played by men: the chorus in Henry V, which is usually played by a man; and Tybalt, obviously. We had a school group and one of the girls asked, “I’m playing a man in our school’s Midsummer. How do you figure out how to find the mannerisms?” And I said, “I don’t really look at it from that point of view.” Take the character and strip away the man or woman…it’s still a human that’s acting this way. So, I don’t come at it from, like, “All right, all these men have played Iago before, Iago’s a man.” In this particular production, Iago’s a woman. But I look at it as somebody who feels wronged, feels jealous, feels rage. Anyone can feel those things, man or woman, child or adult. The great thing about playing villains is, you can’t go into it hating the character you’re playing. I have to go into it and truly believe that every action he’s taking comes from his own truth. It’s so easy to judge the characters you’re playing, but then that’ll screw you up completely.
RA: But I’m sure that’s the same for every role?
LF: Oh, for sure, absolutely. Yeah. And I wasn’t that familiar with Othello either, and I think a lot of women in the arts are not that familiar with Othello because of all the plays, that one’s so masculine. It’s such a large, male-dominated piece. There’s only three women — Bianca, Desdemona and Emilia. So unless you’re right for those characters, you’re not really searching Othello for monologue pieces. So I didn’t familiarize myself with it. I knew of it, but didn’t know it. And I have been so amazed at how fantastic this play is. I’m like, this has to be one of his best plays he ever wrote.
The wording he uses, it’s so applicable to everybody ’cause we’ve all been there. People who come in and say they would never do what Iago did, I’m like, “You have to have thought of some of that before.” And in a day and age where people use social media as a way to shield their bullying– people are this mean and this conniving on social media. I see it all the time. I mean, there are YouTube comments that you would read and you’re like, “I can’t believe you would say that!”
RA: But even not on social media, just in general, you find people who are manipulative.
LF: Exactly. And what I think what is really interesting is that females tend to really have some of these qualities. It’s like, it’s a masculine play with all these different themes, but in the female world — and in the acting world, too — these are things you see throughout. Competitiveness and jealousy… and you know, the backstabbing. It’s such an amazing play.
RA: I’m sure there are a lot of layers you can play around with there.
LF: Yeah. And what I love is that the women that are involved in this show, you know, I’m excited to see them play the roles they’re playing in this show because I think for a lot of them it’s going to push them out of their comfort zone into this new world, so I’m excited to see where they take these characters and how they create them anew.
LB: Well, we have this unique thing where we live together, so you can already see it pushing her out of her comfort zone. It’s gonna be really fun to see. We have three company members already in it — we have Laura, Emily Trask, and Leah Gabriel. So Goneril from Lear and Emily is the redhead from Midsummer One. It’s gonna be really fun for our audience to see three people that they know do something completely different, and also really fun to introduce ten new people who we’ve never really hit the stage with before. Except for Kate Gunther, who’s playing Bianca and who’s done shows with us before. But [we have] all these new people, and all these powerful women that I cannot wait to see stand up and say these words and have everyone see this play in a new light. That’s gonna be really cool. Another really exciting thing about it is, coming off from Christmas Carol, with the spectacle and the costumes and big set — there’s nothing. We’re doing it all with just ten chairs.
RA: Oh, really? So everything’s kind of minimal.
LB: [Nods affirmatively] Minimalistic. And that was another thing. Since we were doing this really strong choice, we didn’t want to hide it behind anything. You’ve seen our stuff, they’re minimalistic to begin with. It’s Shakespeare, we don’t need anything grand. But we wanted to take all the polish off, take all the drapes down. So, it’s exposed walls, ten chairs, a white sheet, and platforms for them to sit on and step in. So it’s raw and exposed. It’s thirteen of the best actors we’ve ever met and we’re just gonna let ’em loose. And people are gonna walk in and go, “This is it?”
RA: And all the concentration will just be on the text and actors.
LB: [Nods] …And what they can do. Exactly.
RA: So what was the casting process like?
LB: Well, what we do first is, we have a resident company and we look at the company and see who could fill these roles. So Laura, she hadn’t played a major character– she’d been playing supporting characters, so it was time to get her a lead role. And Emily and Leah Gabriel playing Desdemona and Rodrigo, they just kind of fit perfectly. So then after that, we had a lot of roles to fill. What was exciting was that we’ve had a lot of interest from people with a lot of big credits because the project was exciting.
So, we saw our casting pool grow dramatically. [We have] Carol Linnea Johnson, who’s done 5 Broadway shows, in the cast; Deanna Gibson, who is an amazing New York actress, is playing Emilia. Leah Dutchin, playing Othello, is an L.A. actor we’ve brought in. So, you start to look around, and when you put the casting notice out saying you’re looking for females to play Othello and Iago and Rodrigo, they go, “Oh!” So we’ve brought her in, and this is a fun fact about Leah [Dutchin]: her heritage would be in the area where Othello is actually from.
RA: So she’ll definitely have something interesting to put into that [role].
LB: Yeah. It’s exactly where Othello would have been from. Because Othello is traditionally portrayed as an African-American. But he’s [referred to as] a Moor.
RA: Right. So that like, sort of Middle-Eastern…
LB: Right, and she’s light-skinned, so that adds another interesting layer, because now they start to put this prejudice on her, and they’re seeing something that isn’t there.
RA: It’s not just the “racist” thing.
LB: [Nods] It’s everything. It’s power. And what’s interesting, the main reason, if you think about it– race isn’t even the number one on Iago’s reasons for hating Othello. It’s that he was overlooked for Cassio.
LF: But just to add to that: what else is interesting is that yes, being overlooked is one of his reasons, but then as the play progresses he never talks about that again. He starts talking about all these other reasons for hating Othello so much. And you’re like, “Oh my god, he’s all over the place.” It’s internal. He talks about that in the beginning, about Cassio, and then he starts to morph into these other things, this roller-coaster ride and it’s like, this guy’s a sociopath. A sociopath that eventually turns into a psychopath. Everything starts to get away from him and he can’t catch up to what he started.
LB: One of the things we’ve been discovering and sort of what we’ve been talking about is that everyone thinks he’s this master of manipulation.
LF: Yeah, he’s a great improviser.
LB: The ball gets rolling and he says numerous times, you know, “Tonight’s the night, I’m gonna have to make this work or I’m done. Or it’s the end of me.” You know?
RA: He has to make sure no one talks to each other.
LF: As I was thinking about it, we’re doing it in a small space, there is nothing. It’s bare, bare, bare. And I think it’s so appropriate for this play, ’cause if Iago, especially, has to raise his voice too loud, somebody will hear whoever he is trying to manipulate. So I think it’s so great in that small space, the audience has to do this [leans forward in seat], because everything is, “So now I’m talking to you, but I can’t let anyone hear, or else I’m gonna be found out.”
LB: And they’re all sitting onstage! [Laughs]
RA: So no one goes offstage?
LB: Once they’re up there, they don’t leave.
RA: Oh, interesting!
LF: Yeah. And I think he does that with every character. Everything is so close. He’s like, “I have your back,” and there’s always this, you know, “Come and let me whisper in your ear and tell you how we’re gonna get away with this.” And I think he uses the audience that way, too, by making them have to come in a little closer. ‘Cause that’s how he gets to everybody.
RA: And then it ups the intimacy level.
LB: You want the audience sitting on the edge of their seat. It’s what Mark Rylance succeeded so well in Richard III, was making us go, “Okay, you’re talking to us, now what are you thinking?” ‘Cause Iago’s so good in public — you know, the Public Iago and the Private Iago. You would never know. He’s got them all so good. And he’s charming, and funny, and hilarious.
LF: He’s everybody’s best friend. If you think about it, Othello made the smartest choice by going with Cassio and leaving Iago in the position he was in, because Iago is everybody’s friend, he builds a community amongst the soldiers, everybody loves him. He’s the good-time guy, y’know. That scene in particular, where he’s getting Cassio drunk, he’s able to do that because he’s the kind of the guy who goes, “Let’s have fun, let’s celebrate.” Of course, Iago doesn’t see it that way, he doesn’t see it from that angle. The way everything fell out, yeah, Cassio was the better choice. Iago should’ve stayed where he was.
LB: You see that in the military a lot, especially at the sergeant level, which is where Iago is. Sergeants, they’re still fighting on the front lines, they’re the ones that are most active. When you become Lieutenant, you become the in-between for the upper echelon, so there’s a lot of being away from the men. And Iago is so good with the men, it seems to be the right place for him. And it’s fun to have that be the sort of dramaturgical thing that’s really hard to play, but it’s a great way to go.
Othello, he’s a smart general. You gotta have an Othello that’s smart, sexy, all these things, but is a good guy, in that so you can see him crumble. You don’t wanna see the crass in him. They have put this label on him because of his skin color, because of his heritage. However, he has overcome that in a time when that just didn’t happen. Shakespeare wrote this minority character leading the way — he’s a leader that is charismatic and just and true, and is trusted by the Senate.
And then through Iago’s dealings, he’s a tragic human. You just see him just crumble to nothing and make these horrible, horrible choices, and in the end he redeems himself and ends his own life. He’s been driven to the brink of madness. He’s been manipulated by the master manipulator. And Iago has crushed an angel, pretty much. Which brings them, that whole thing at the end, you’re just like, “You are insane. You are a bad man.” And if we do it right — and I think we will, we have the actors to do it — we start to like him, like Richard III, really charming. But then all of a sudden, it goes too far, and he breaks someone that’s great, and you’re left with this terrible human that’s destroyed everyone’s life.
LF: Well, as an audience member, you watch these people and you are with them, and you’re with them, and then there is a moment in which they cross the line, that as an audience you’re like, “No, no, no — I’m not with you anymore, I’m not with you anymore!” That happened to us when we were watching Mark Rylance do Richard III, and the audience is cheering him on and then everybody starts to go, “What am I doing?!”
LB: And you’re like, “I was rooting for him before!”
RA: And that’s a great thing to do, is play with the audience.
LB: That is perfection when it comes to that. And you always try to achieve that. Iago can’t come out curling the mustache. We have to feel he’s justified. He has to feel justified. We have to see his point, and then we have to see him make all the wrong choices.
RA: I feel like that’s always the best way to portray– like, the best villains in theatre and film are always the one you end up rooting for, that you come to an understanding with.
LB: That’s why we worked so hard with Tristan as Edmund [in Lear]; Dad’s kind of mean to him, and he should feel wronged. But just because you feel wronged doesn’t mean you ruin your brother’s life and go around murdering people. So there has to be that glimmer of, “Man, he’s got it rough,” but then, the choices are all the wrong ones. And that’s what’s completely interesting.
LF: It’s funny, because all these characters are so strong — they’re so strong — and [yet] they’re so easily manipulated by the right words of this one person. So I always say things like, “Wow, I hope that people watch this play and say to themselves, ‘Oh my god, I know someone in my life that does that and I better be on my guard!”
RA: Make them think twice.
LF: We all have those people in our lives, yeah. And when Othello goes down that path and the bug has been placed in his ear, I think, I would’ve reacted the same way. I wouldn’t have gone as far as he went, but that rage and hatred he feels towards Cassio, I’m like, I would’ve felt that rage too if someone had put that in my ear. And what I love about this play is that it’s all about what you don’t see. So all these things are being said and done and manipulated but nobody is actually seeing this true proof of it. We’ve got this handkerchief, but we didn’t see Desdemona. We hear tell through Iago that Desdemona went in and gave Cassio this beloved handkerchief that Othello gave her. We don’t see her do that, it’s all hearsay but everyone really starts to believe that.
LB: Even Desdemona makes a flaw — she lies to him. She says, “I just don’t have it with me.” And she also says, “I can’t find it. I don’t know where it is, it’s lost.”
LF: But isn’t that always the case, though? If you had just told the truth, this wouldn’t have happened.
RA: That’s what makes Shakespeare [plays] human; he really taps into those– what everyone does.
LF: Yeah. It’s gonna be really fun. I’m so in love with Iago because I know people like that in my life. But I really love — and Lenny hears me say this every day, but I’m so in love with Rodrigo.
LB: He’s the butt of everything, he’s so tragic.
LF: He’s so tragic!
LB: I talk with Leah Gabriel a lot about how we want to approach him/her, because he’s either the clown or he’s angry and he’s the one that really– he’s not as smart as Othello, but because he’s so in love with someone, he’s so madly in love with Desdemona, and Iago uses him like a dog, and it’s so sad. And you should feel so sad for him and yet you should laugh at him a little bit because he is a bit of a bumbling fool, and yet he just loves her and wants to be with her and this monster keeps using him.
LF: And again, if he would just say to Desdemona, “These are my feelings towards you,” and then Desdemona goes, “I know you feel that way, but I don’t feel that way back, but I still think you’re this great person,” you know? It’s like, communication, communication, communication — where the entire play is about communication! Iago is the great communicator of spewing out all this information, and yet nothing is ever communicated. I just think it’s one of his best.
And Desdemona, another extremely strong character. When I was studying her in grad school, I would always cast off as like, “Oh, how could she ever let this happen?” But the Desdemona/Othello love affair is so pure. They love each other.
LB: Which is why he falls so hard.
RA: I was gonna get to that, the whole contrast in Iago’s doggedness, trying to get this thing planted into Othello’s brain, and Othello’s being so innocent about love.
LF: She just loves him so purely too, and it’s not even about skin color, it’s what’s inside.
LB: He has that speech that says, “We just talked. I told her stories, and from that came love.” He’s polite to Dad, when Dad’s like, “This can’t happen, he’s a monster, blah blah blah.” And Othello goes, “call her, and if she says she loves me, I get to have her. And if she doesn’t, no tricks, I won’t say a word. I’ll stand back and let her share her true feelings.” He’s respectful and he does everything right.
RA: Right, and that’s great for his arc, because then he does a total 360.
LB: He goes from doing every little thing right to this one little flea in the ear, and it just– you could see he fights it. He goes, “No, she wouldn’t do that” and later tells Iago, “Why didn’t you tell me it was better if I didn’t know?” He gets mad at Iago, which is part of Iago’s plan. It’s brilliantly structured.
LF: We’re actors, so we’re obviously going to create things in our heads and make the justifications for ourselves and it never has to be told to the audience, it’s just our own little processing work that we do. But I know people are coming into these plays that are really scholarly in their knowledge of Shakespeare or are coming in seeing new things, and something that I think is really interesting for those people coming into the shows and they’re really listening to the themes and the words and the history, is the fact that — it is no lie and you can read it really clearly — is that Iago hates women. He’s misogynistic towards women, he constantly talks about how they’re whores, basically, he can’t trust every single one of them, even his own wife. So I can’t wait for that one person to come in and say, “How interesting, Iago is such a woman hating character, in a play with all women.”
RA: So that’s gonna add another layer for sure.
LB: Since they’re all women, it separates soldiers from women. It’s this unique power. It’s so interesting, it’s like tissue paper, layer it on top and it still works. Our dramaturg, Emily, who’s also playing Desdemona, she’s like, “This is a great commentary, let’s keep this in.” It’s gonna be interesting how it turns out. We don’t know, and that’s what’s so exciting, to sit here and say, we don’t know. We see how it could work and how it lands. And that’s an exciting thing to do, is to hear people say, “You’re doing what?” At the end of the day, if the gimmick gets them in the door, and they end up seeing a great play, then that’s great. And that was the Midsummer thing: gimmick, gimmick, gimmick — but also then go, “Wow, this is really good.”
LF: I was gonna say, with Midsummer — and I think it’s true with this play, as well — when we had females playing male characters, we never commented on the fact that we were a male character, so that we never walked around [lowers voice] like this–
LB: Or had the males be really effeminate and talk in high voices–
RA: Though, some kind of went for it…
LB: You’re right, some did go for it. [Laughs]
LF: You’re just playing someone who’s feeling all these feelings…
RA: It’s less about the physicality.
LF: Exactly. ‘Cause people will buy into it. This one, in particular, because we had changed the pronouns, so it is girls. It’s a world of women.
RA: Have you changed the names?
LB: No. There was no way we were gonna have people sit through “Iaga” all night long. So, everything’s the same. They say, “Sir” in the military, so we didn’t change that. It was tricky sometimes, when you take the “he’s” and “she’s” out it’s hard to distinguish we’re talking about so we added a lot of the names back in whenever there was a pronoun. So we now go, “Cassio was here and said this, and Desdmona…” you know, so we can clarify who we’re talking about.
LF: As long as the action and the thought process behind the line is clear, it doesn’t matter. You know, those kind of things, to me, it’s very much the way — I love this analogy, because I love her so much — when Battlestar Gallactica first came out, Starbuck was a man. Battlestar Gallactica 2.0, it was a girl, and nobody was like, “What, she’s a woman now?!” She was in a man’s world, and she was a total badass! She was like, “I’m a military girl, what do you want?” I mean, girls are in the military, this is how we roll.
And I hope that the people in this business that make choices on what shows are big come to see this too, they see an all-female production of a Shakespeare play, and say, “You know what, this really works. There should be more shows like this.” And I think it’s great and it’s sad at the same time that the women we brought together got so excited whenever we put that ad up. It’s exciting they want to be a part of it so much, but it’s also sad at the same time.
RA: Kind of a commentary on how often it occurs.
LF: And you know why? Because it never occurs. And that is really a shame. I’m happy that — we loved the Mark Rylance production, but I think that all-female productions of any show can be just as successful. I mean, you think about some of these women that we know that are some of the greatest theatrical actresses in America. If you could get all those women —
RA: Just pool all that talent.
LB: I mean, we’ve seen Helen Mirren play Prospero [in Julie Taymor’s The Tempest] — we’ve seen it. But to do an entire female cast, it’s not a new idea, but it’s a darkened one.
LF: And it should be done more often.
LB: [Turns to Frye] When did I say I wanted to do this? Like, five years ago? We’ve just been waiting for the right moment. Just like with Lear. Our producer said, “I think it’s time for that all-female Othello.” It’s an exciting time — for the company and for the show. It sounds so corny, but it’s like, “The play’s the thing.” Everything else will follow.
Images courtesy of Lloyd Mulvey and Chasi Annexy.