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The Folger Spotlight

Q&A: Mary Chieffo and Josh Nelson Youssef

The Reading Room Festival:
Iago: The Green Eyed Monster

a woman dressed in military garb, standing with her hands behind her back, alone in a spotlight in the middle of a dark room

The Reading Room Festival (Jan 25-28) features new work and conversations inspired by, in response to, or in dialogue with the plays of William Shakespeare. Leading up to the festival, we’re doing a Q&A series with the creators involved.

Iago: The Green Eyed Monster is a musical augmented-reality experience that reimagines one of Shakespeare’s classic villains as a woman. This prequel to a futuristic take on Othello explores the psychology and origin story of Iago.

Ahead of The Reading Room Festival, co-creators Mary Chieffo and Josh Nelson Youssef share more about their innovative adaptation in the Q&A below. Join us during the festival for an illustrated talk on Sunday, January 28, at 4:30pm.

Adapting Shakespeare to New Forms at The Reading Room Festival

Adapting Shakespeare to New Forms

Explore two Shakespeare adaptations with their creators: a musical AR experience, "Iago: The Green Eyed Monster," and a post-apocalyptic film, "Ambition’s Debt."
Sun, Jan 28, 2024, 4:30pm


FOLGER: What’s the story behind the creation of your performance and its early life? What was your process?

Mary: After playing Iago as a man in Harlem Shakespeare Festival’s all-female production in 2015, I was inspired to continue working on this deeply challenging and intriguing role and wondered what “he” would look like as a modern military woman – a woman who had ingratiated herself in this male-dominated world by rescinding a part of herself and succumbing to the power of the toxic masculinity of her peers.

About three years after writing a full adaptation of Shakespeare’s original text – Operation Othello – and developing a proof-of-concept of the first episode with JuVee Productions and Oculus, Josh (who was head of Immersive at JuVee) reached out to me to co-create what we now know as Iago: The Green Eyed Monster, a Musical AR Experience in partnership with Verizon. Josh and I had written one other Shakespeare-inspired rock song together for our first iteration of Othello, so when Verizon approached us about putting together a 3-5 minute piece that would showcase their 5G network, we banded together over Zoom and wrote Green Eyed Monster (or what we affectionately call GEM) and came up with storyboards for the narrative over the span of less than five days.

As we worked on the arc of the song, we realized it was a villain origin story that grappled with the dangerous effect of microaggressions in the workplace. Our female Iago is consumed by her own jealousy and internalized rage over being overlooked, turning her into the “green eyed monster” she ends up warning Othello about in the actual Shakespeare play.

In fact, it will be fun for Shakespeare enthusiasts to note the lyrics of our song are all derived from lines of text spoken by Iago and other characters from the original text. My favorite example is how we took Desdemona’s line “O these men, these men!” and gave it to Iago at the end of the first verse of our song. And our chorus is of course one of Iago’s most iconic lines that has transcended time: “O, beware, my lord, of jealousy! It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on.”

Beyond bringing people into our organic yet digital dystopian world and having them rock out to Shakespeare verse set to some banging music, we are incredibly motivated to spark conversation around the themes of the piece itself. We want folks to reflect on the ways in which we all have participated in microaggressions, whether we have been on the giving or receiving end, and how our society unfortunately is structured in a way that easily creates “monsters” and how often we label anyone who is not a straight white cis male as a villain if they do anything outside of the boxes we have put them in. This piece should be a catharsis, a means to let us release and reflect on the toxicity of the patriarchy and heteronormativity.

FOLGER: Were there any particular problems or knots in Shakespeare’s works that you wanted to interrogate? What are you hoping that audiences will take away from this performance?

Mary: Absolutely. Ever since I started exploring the role of Iago in 2015, I was particularly intrigued by the concept of “honest Iago” and what honesty truly signifies in the context of gender roles. In Shakespeare’s original work, Iago’s “honesty” is a complex, multi-layered guise, often seen as no-nonsense, swashbuckling – reminiscent of a Jack Sparrow type. This gritty honesty in a man is accepted, even admired; it’s seen as straightforward, bold, and charismatic.

In my full-color and gender-conscious adaptation of the play entitled Operation Othello, I was excited to explore translating this type of “honesty” onto a modern woman. How does this straightforward, unapologetic truth-telling manifest in a female Iago? Does society perceive her honesty with the same respect, or does society code such behavior as abrasive or unseemly? Has Iago ingratiated herself so intensely in this world of toxic masculinity that she has lost all sense of self? While Iago: The Green Eyed Monster specifically hones in the microaggressions Iago has experienced leading up to being passed over for Lieutenant, my hopes for the larger adaptation of the play dive deeper into the societal perceptions and double standards around what it means to be “honest” as a woman, especially in a male-dominated environment like the military setting of this story.

Looking at the world today, we are living in such intense and dangerous times when it comes to the rights of women and the LGBTQIA+ community, both of which I am very proud to be a part. I hope Iago: The Green Eyed Monster and the conversations around it can allow anyone feeling frustrated, afraid, and disappointed in this world and America specifically to have a moment to escape and then reflect on the feelings percolating inside of them. I hope this piece does what all great art should do – and certainly what Shakespeare was trying to do in his day: allow us to examine ourselves through heightened expression in order to inspire action in the real world we live in.

FOLGER: What are you hoping to learn from The Reading Room Festival? 

Mary & Josh: We are so excited to see the ways in which fellow Shakespeare lovers have subverted and reclaimed what ignites them in his words and stories. It is thrilling to be part of a movement and a moment where artists are interrogating the meaning of great art and what is upheld by our society as “classical”. Not only are we looking forward to being entertained by the performances at the festival, we are motivated to engage in conversation around how decolonizing and re-examining Shakespeare through a modern lens is essential to our progress as a theatre community.

FOLGER: Anything else that you’d like readers and audience members to know about you and/or your performance?

Mary & Josh: Iago: The Green Eyed Monster is an invitation to interact with Shakespeare’s work in a wholly innovative way. Central to our vision is the use of Augmented Reality, which transforms how the audience experiences the narrative. AR technology empowers viewers to become directors of their own experience, literally allowing them to navigate and explore Shakespeare’s world from their unique perspectives.

This interactive element is pivotal in our piece. It offers a personal journey through the story, where each audience member can choose their focus, angle, and pace. This engagement means that no two experiences of the performance are the same; each is shaped by the individual’s choices and movements. By providing this level of interaction, we hope to democratize the experience of Shakespeare, making it more accessible and personally resonant.

Our aim is to inspire our audience to bring their own viewpoints to Shakespeare’s works, to see these timeless stories through the lens of their experiences and interpretations. We believe that every individual has something unique to contribute to the understanding and appreciation of these classic tales.

Experience Iago: The Green Eyed Monster for yourself by visiting and using the QR code to download the app on your mobile device.