Shakespeare's tragedy "Othello" shows the disintegration of a great warrior who is consumed by jealousy.
It's heartbreaking and brutal and presents significant acting demands that are tough for even seasoned professionals. Modesto Junior College theater instructor Michael Lynch said his students are ready for the challenge and will impress audiences with their production, which opens Oct. 19.
"I forget they're students," he said. "They're artists."
The show, which will be staged in traditional Shakespearean style, features a 32-member cast. Jelani Brown, who has been acting only a year, stars in the title role, with Jon Cates playing his villainous underling, Iago, who plots to destroy Othello's new marriage. Corrine Bryant is Othello's doomed wife, Desdemona, and Rachel Anne Pearre is Iago's wife and Desdemona's attendant, Emilia.
"All four of these people far surpass what I've asked them to do," Lynch said.
First performed in 1604, the play deals with tensions in an interracial marriage (Othello is black, with a white wife, Desdemona). Iago causes Othello to falsely believe that his wife is unfaithful, causing Othello to go into a rage and eventually kill her.
Lynch said audience members of a certain age will find it impossible not to think of comparisons with football hero O.J Simpson, who was acquitted in the 1995 murder of his wife. But even younger people can relate to the story because "the green-eyed monster" of jealousy is a timeless problem.
"Shakespeare understands the way humans work," Cates said.
Cast members prepared for their roles by watching film versions, including the 1995 movie starring Laurence Fishburne and Kenneth Branagh and the 1965 black-face version with Laurence Olivier.
To keep the focus on the acting, Lynch has chosen to stage the MJC production with a skeletal set, without a lot of bells and whistles.
Brown said he likes how much depth Othello has. "He goes through so many different emotions," he said. "I love being able to dig into the character."
He finds it difficult to do the rage scenes because he is not an angry person in real life. He thinks Othello kills Desdemona because of his pride. Brown said the character's thought process is: "I'm too much of a man to let you live. There's no me without you and you without me."
Cates said he loves playing the play's evil character. "Iago is the archetype for supervillains the classic bad guy so many characters are based on," he said.
Lynch said the actor's performance is unlike any other Iago he has ever seen. He slithers around the stage watching everyone else and keeping them off balance.
Bryant said she has a love-hate relationship with Shakespeare and struggled at first to understand the meaning of the archaic language. But now she's getting it and enjoying learning her role.
"I'm just starting to realize how much depth is in my character," she said. "She's so innocent and so naive, she doesn't see anything coming."
Pearre doesn't think the audience will have any trouble understanding the play because the actors have worked so hard to convey the meaning through their acting. "We've taken it beyond words," she said.
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 19-20, 26-27; 2 p.m. Oct. 21 and 28
WHERE: Modesto Junior College main auditorium, 435 College Ave.
TICKETS: $10 general, $8 seniors 62 and older and students
CALL: (209) 575-6776