Call it gentrification if you must—Sellwood has edgy art now.
That's thanks to the new Post5 Theatre, which leaves the vision of former directors Cassandra and Ty Boyce far behind it with its newest production, an all-female Othello set in what looks like an Operation Desert Storm bunker.
Until now, Post5 had a reputation for doing happy-go-lucky adaptations of Shakespeare's fluffier works. After starting with Romeo & Juliet at Montavilla's Milepost 5 artist community, the company moved to Sellwood and continued with polka-dotted circle skirts in Much Ado About Nothing and a Comedy of Errors that looked like Portlandia. The occasional dramatic productions were relatively straightforward stagings of contemporary works like Equus and Bill Cain's post-9/11 play Equivocation.
This Othello is a different beast. Drammy-winning makeup artist Caitlin Margo Fisher-Draeger directs 6-foot-plus actress Ithica Tell as the eponymous Moorish general. Tell seizes, sweats and smothers her wife on a splatter-painted stage that's decorated with hazard signs, air intake fans, electrical boxes and naked light bulbs. Within the first five minutes, Tell creates a homoerotic charge by embracing Joellen Sweeney (playing Desdemona) as Post5 mainstay Jessica Tidd blazes onstage as villainous Iago in combat boots and a septum piercing.
This is Shakespeare with tattooed female soldiers who wield handguns and spend their time either fucking each other or fucking each other over.
The one male character, Sean Doran as Roderigo, mostly gimps around the play. Limping across stage with a bum leg, he's a comic foil to Tidd's hurricane of an Iago, speaking malapropisms and getting pummeled by Oregon Children's Theater actress Lava Alapai. He dies first.
Female-driven, violent productions with Black Lives Matter references have been the calling cards of Portland theater this year, but Fisher-Draeger's female troops deliver something different. At Bag & Baggage Theater, a woman played Ahab for the first time ever in Moby Dick, Rehearsed, but sex barely mattered in that PG-rated classic. Here, sexuality and fidelity fuel the entire plot.
Othello as a woman is the same: a jealous Goliath who smothers her lover. But Tell makes the titular general human by hesitating to murder and sweating with fear. You can't look away from her.
Tell is also one of just two black cast members in a play criticized as one of Shakespeare's most racist. "An old black ram is tupping your white ewe," Iago says. But unlike the Afrocentric play We Are Proud to Present… at Artists Rep or Smoldering Fires at Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center, blackness isn't the focus here. It's a subtlety that pops in and comes straight from the script, since Shakespeare wrote Othello after African ambassadors stirred up controversy in London. On a modern set with guns and combat boots, the topic doesn't need drilling home, and Fisher-Draeger is smart to honor the script without belaboring the point.
This is Portland theater as noteworthy as it gets—in Sellwood, in a remodeled chapel across from a shiny row of new townhouses.
see it: Othello is at Post5 Theatre, 1666 SE Lambert St., 971-333-1758. 7:30 pm Friday-Sunday, through April 23. $20.