Shakespeare Theatre’s emotionally charged new production of “Othello,” expertly directed by Michael Kahn, seems largely traditional on the surface. But stars Avery Brooks (Othello) and Patrick Page (Iago) break new ground with their unconventional interpretations of two of the Bard’s best known yet most controversial characters. The result? A superb opening act for the company’s 2005-2006 season.
“Othello” never fails to resonate strongly with modern audiences, who can easily relate Elizabethan class, gender, and racial attitudes to contemporary times and mores. Shakespeare’s worldly, progressive Venetians are delighted to have a swashbuckling African military genius on their team and shower him with honors and power. But, a barbarian marrying into one of Venice’s better families? Well, now, there’s an issue.
Things only grow more complicated. In Mr. Kahn’s Elizabethan world, Shakespeare’s fearless general is not merely a jealous suitor. He is fatally inexperienced in the ways of love. This weakness provides an opening for the disgruntled ensign Iago, whose destructive machinations, far from being meticulously planned, are transparently improvised a la carte and painfully close to discovery at all times.
While perhaps best known as Captain Sisco in the TV series “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” Mr. Brooks is a veteran stage actor and musician first and foremost. His brave portrayal of Othello here is deep and comprehensive, adding sophistication and touching vulnerability to a seemingly two-dimensional character. In his accustomed military environment, this Othello’s authority is compelling. But his brief, tragic marriage to the younger Desdemona exposes him as a marital amateur no more sophisticated than a lovesick teenager, easily manipulated, subject to anxiety attacks leading to epilepsy, and prone to the suspicions and insinuations that destroy many a youthful romance — weaknesses that lead to the profoundly tragic conclusion of a noble life.
As Othello’s hate-filled nemesis, Mr. Page distances himself from the usual portrayal of Iago as a man with a plan. His Iago intends to extract at least a metaphorical pound of flesh from Othello, who has passed him over for promotion. But out of control in his mindless, misdirected malice, he fleeces the hapless rube, Roderigo; fouls up the career trajectory of Cassio; cheats on his wife even as she assists him; and gums up the entire Venetian command, all on the fly and all for the heck of it. Mr. Page conjures forth the icy instincts of a true psychopath, the term originally preferred for describing a loveless, guiltless individual caring little for the death and mayhem left in his wake.
While Mr. Brooks and Mr. Page dominate this sterling production, the ensemble cast adds notable heft. As a winning, naive Desdemona, Colleen Delany brings gaiety and innocence to the corrupt world of political and military intrigue, greatly enhancing the pathos of the play’s violent finale. In smaller but crucial roles, Lise Bruneau (Emilia), Gregory Wooddell (Cassio), Erik Steele (Roderigo) and Laurence Drozd (Lodovico) also shine, re-creating the style and attitude of a highly stratified society.
And a hat tip to David Sabin. His early appearance as Brabantio, frequently portrayed as a sputtering racist, emphasizes instead the intense emotions of a surprised and aggrieved father.
WHO: Shakespeare Theatre Company
WHAT: Shakespeare’s “Othello”
WHERE: The Shakespeare Theatre Company, 450 Seventh St. NW
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Sundays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays ; and 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Noon performances are scheduled for Sept. 21 and Oct. 26. Through Oct. 30.
TICKETS: $24.25 to $71.25.
INFORMATION: Call 202/547-1122 (toll free at 877/487-8849) or visit on line at www.shakespearetheatre.org.
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS