Though the first time Andrea Frankle and Tony Molina met they didn't exchange a word, they definitely shared a "moment." It wouldn't be until the second time they met that the words flew. "The first night that we actually hung out and started talking, it's a lot like what Othello says about how they fell in love," says Molina whose portrayal of the black Moor opposite his real-life wife, Frankle, in The Shakespeare Festival at Tulane's production of Othello is one of the more inspired casting moments in recent local theater.
Molina and Frankle first met in Baton Rouge, with Frankle (who is white) then a first-year graduate acting student at Louisiana State University and Molina a member of the then-LSU-affiliated Swine Palace Theater. He dropped in on the costume shop in which Frankle worked, and she couldn't help but notice him dramatically tweaking at his "huge Afro" with a pick. "Just by his fooling around, I could see what a great actor he was," says Frankle, who had no plans to date anyone at that moment, the least of which an actor. "He had that glow, that giant energy around him. Plus his voice was unlike any ... it was very familiar. He seemed very familiar, like I had met him before, or seen him before."
Molina felt the same way, "like I had known her from someplace, and I was embarrassed because I didn't remember her name. But we hadn't met."
But they didn't say say anything until they ran into each other after Molina appeared in As I Lay Dying.
Just before their introduction was what Frankle calls the moment. "Tony came down the stairs and into the lobby," she says, "and it was like, 'Ding.' It was crazy."
"We had eye contact," Molina says. "And it was like, the music plays, everything turns to slow motion, the world fades out around you."
After the show they met up at a party. This was where the talking happened, which is also the similarity between Frankle and Molina's real-life romance and that of Othello and Desdemona.
Othello and Molina share a gift for storytelling, and both have some great material to cull from. Molina spent several years with the Big Apple Circus, where he started doing rigging before apprenticing as a clown, honing his skills under the tutelage of several masters. "Their clown names, which they prefer to go by, are Oaf, Rouge and Fish," Molina says. "Oh, and Grandma. Grandma was my mentor."
At the party he began telling her circus stories. "I think we were there till 4 in the morning. Just me telling her stories and her sitting there going ...," and here Molina draws on his clowning skills, copping a rapt, love-struck pose. His wife, still his biggest fan, cracks up.
After that night, Frankle says, they were never really apart. They've been together for seven years, and married for three and a half.
In much the same way, Othello won Desdemona's fascination and her heart. A Moorish general employed by Venice, Othello mingled with the patrician society there. Desdemona's father, a senator, entertained him regularly in their home, where Desdemona was enraptured by his battlefield tales. Othello says, "She'd come again, and with a greedy ear devour up my discourse."
Desdemona and Othello elope, and despite her father's frequent invitations, he is livid when their union is revealed, calling it "unnatural," and accusing the general of seducing her with witchcraft. Reflecting on Shakespeare's doomed couple, Molina says, "It's puzzling and then it's not. I don't understand, and then I do, because I know the way people are."
When she first told her family about Molina, Frankle had an addendum to the list of what she loved about him: "Well, there's something else, he's black. Not that they threw a chair through the window or anything," she continues, "but there is that extra step that I had to take. And that he had to take with his family. 'Well, she's white.'"
On Molina's side, "I've had people say, your mother was black, what's wrong with a black woman?" To which he answers, "I love this woman. I don't care if she's purple. It doesn't make a difference to me."
The issue of race, in Molina's opinion, does play a role in the jealous wrath that overtakes Othello: "There's an insecurity inherent in that she's going to naturally want to go with one of her own." It's a sentiment Molina can relate to, albeit in his distant past. "I was dating someone of a different race, in a situation where I felt like she may have been cheating on me, with someone of her race. I easily could have felt that paranoia. It's a horrible place to be. So it's getting back in touch with that guy. It's where Othello comes from."
The Shakespeare Festival at Tulane Artistic Director Aime Michel describes the season as an exploration of the "other" -- the all-too-human tendency to assume difference has to equal distance. Both with the Jewish Shylock in The Merchant of Venice and Othello, Shakespeare undercuts his era's prevailing world view by endowing these men with the richness of humanity that he brings to all his characters. "From the moment he walks onstage, he's this noble, majestic, strong, loving person," Michel says of Othello. "It's so tragic to see him brought down."
As with Romeo and Juliet, whose families are an obstacle to their love, it's society as much as anything that dooms the couple. "Shakespeare's not just looking at the relationship, he's looking at the whole world," says Michel. In this light, Desdemona's deathbed refusal to condemn Othello becomes not an act of self-effacement, but accepting responsibility for setting the tragedy in motion. Michel phrases Desdemona's thoughts this way: "'Have I done something to upset the world order? Would it not have happened if I hadn't married someone not of my own race?'" Michel pauses. "In New Orleans, it may be harder to communicate that, because our culture is so mixed. People might be more apt to see her as a martyr."
As an interracial couple living in the South, Frankle and Molina have experienced their share of negative attention. "Maybe about eight to 10 instances of full-out, belligerent racism," says Frankle. "That doesn't include all the little subtle ones." But, she continues, "It's only as much of an issue as you make of it. When you stop looking for it, it doesn't bother you so much anymore. It's like, they're in the minority. It just makes them look bad."
In Othello, says Michel, it's as if Shakespeare is asking, "Why do we create a society where these two people can't be together?" In that way, the happiness Molina and Frankle radiate provides the best imaginable counterpoint to the play. "I think that us being together is education for people, whether they know it or not," says Frankle. "The most common comment that we've gotten -- from friends, family, and strangers -- is, 'My God, what beautiful children you'll have.' And we say, 'Thank you, if we have them. We have to have them first.'"
- Donn Young
- Real-life couple Tony Molina and Andrea Frankle take on the tragic husband and wife of Othello in the latest production by The Shakespeare Festival at Tulane.