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Ten Thousand Things gets to the heart of 'Othello'

Shakespeare is hard. At least, that’s what most of the public thinks. And Michelle Hensley doesn’t blame them for those thoughts. She, like most theatergoers, has suffered through mediocre productions of the Bard in the past — ones where the story gets completely lost amid the flutter of iambic pentameter.

But Hensley knows that Shakespeare has endured through the centuries because of the power of his stories and characters. And for Hensley’s non-traditional audience at Ten Thousand Things Theater, that is certainly the thing.

The company’s latest, “Othello,” also features the directing debut of area actor Sonja Parks.

“I’ve been an actor for Ten Thousand Things for many years,” Parks says. “Michelle approached me about directing and I said, ‘yes, I want to direct “Othello.”’”

Hensley agreed, but also thought it would be good to have an extra pair of hands to aid the first-time director, so the two are sharing the credit. “It’s worked very well,” Hensley says. “We complement each other very well.”

From the beginning, Parks wanted to focus on the play’s underlying theme of jealousy rather than Othello’s race. To that end, the cast includes other black actors in positions of power and a female warrior. “I didn’t want it to just be about a black man in a white man’s world. The racism is still there, but it is more subtle,” she says.

A Ten Thousand Things production — no matter the playwright — is a challenging beast. The company has built its reputation on bringing the shows to nontraditional audiences. For “Othello,” the tour includes area prisons, treatment centers and community centers. To perform in these varied places, the set needs to be small and mobile, and the actors need to be ready to perform with the house lights up.

What this does is bring the story right into the laps of the audience, which creates a tighter bond between the two. “The audience really becomes part of the action,” Parks says.

This especially happens at the prison performances. “Their choice is to go to the show or stay in their cells, so they really want to be there,” Hensley says. “The women are very open in the way they engage in it. The men are engaged too, but in a more solitary way. When they see the show, they can relate it to their lives.”

A small cast builds on that intimacy, with only seven actors taking on the show’s roles. The cast includes Ansa Akyea (Othello), Luverne Seifert (Iago), Tracey Maloney (Desdemona), Christiana Clark, Matt Sciple, Kimberly Richardson and Peter Hansen.

The bond is also fostered by the script. “We cut it down a lot, but we don’t change any of the language,” Hensley says. “The story is very clear.”

The general public will get a chance to see the show starting Friday. Be warned, however. The house lights will still stay up.

“Othello” runs from Friday, Oct. 23, to Nov. 8 at Open Book, 1011 Washington Ave. S., Minneapolis, and Nov. 13-15 at the Minnesota Opera Center, 620 N. First St., Minneapolis. Tickets are $25, with $15 student tickets on Sundays. For information and reservations, call 1-800-838-3006 or visit online.

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