- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 18, 2002

When the play opens, Othello (Craig Wallace) has married the beautiful Desdemona (Suli Holum) without her father Brabantio's consent. Despairing, her father (Lawrence Redmond) charges Othello with witchcraft and brings him before the Duke of Venice to answer for it. As a trusted general of the city's army, he is acquitted when Desdemona proclaims that she freely consented to the marriage.

Iago (Trey Lyford), Othello's ensign, has lost a promotion to the inexperienced Cassio (Dwayne Nitz), who now serves as Othello's second in command. He allies himself with Roderigo (Scot McKenzie), a man enraged by his unsuccessful courtship of Desdemona. Together they work so Iago can destroy Othello and Roderigo can have his bride.

This is a production in which race plays a surprisingly small part, given the material although Othello is Christian and a loyal Venetian, he is a dark-skinned Moor. Director Aaron Posner opts for the far more difficult strategy of building dramatic tension through plot and pacing, instead of reaching for an emotional hot button.

There are several references to the protagonist's skin color, comparing his blackness to sin, for instance. Given that, there is no indication from the text that Iago hates Othello for racial reasons; to the contrary, Shakespeare explains his malice by Iago's ambition and icy hatred of his superior.

Mr. Lyford reveals Iago's evil with facial expressions that make him look less than human. When given the choice between a light, potentially funny line reading and a more serious one, he chooses the former. He is able to feign sincerity with the best of them telling Cassio that reputation doesn't matter at all, then telling Othello that "he that filches from me my good name makes me poor indeed."

In his hands, Mr. Lyford's Iago is almost droll, even attractive, which almost makes up for the lack of dramatic heft.

The estimable Holly Twyford plays Iago's wife, Emilia, as a woman heartsick because her husband no longer shows her any love. Desperate to rekindle his affections, she steals a handkerchief from Desdemona that was a precious gift from Othello and gives it to Iago. Iago then plants the handkerchief in Cassio's chamber. Othello has his cause to order Cassio's death and to take his revenge on Desdemona.

Emilia is one of the more subtle characters in the play, and Miss Twyford captures her weakness and divided loyalties nicely. Her queasy reluctance to tell the truth about the handkerchief, and risk her husband's wrath, is one of the chief pleasures of the production.

Mr. Nitz excels at playing the wronged, virtuous Cassio, whose relationship with Desdemona is wholly chaste. Miss Holum, as Desdemona, has an appropriately virginal look to her (not to mention a mellifluous singing voice). Her perfect innocence works well as she is sacrificed to the gods of men's passions. For some reason, she is put into an unnecessary, imaginary sex scene, as Othello is picturing Cassio coupling with her. Some things are best left to the imagination.

Mr. Wallace is a formidable actor, and well worthy to take on Othello. His baritone resonates and shifts between a bare whisper and a leonine roar; his stage presence is commanding. He is one of those rare actors who can command a scene when standing still.

Yet his performance is missing two crucial aspects. As a professional soldier, his weakness is that he believes others will be as honest and dutiful as he, but his own childlike honesty and trust doesn't emerge. (This is hardly helped by his costume for most of the show, which never resembles a general's uniform even when he is returning from battle.)

Second, although Othello is a man of rectitude and high standing, his unapproved marriage to Desdemona was a severe breach of social grace and (at least implicitly) a slap in the face to her father. Othello must have known Brabantio would have reacted badly, but he looks surprised when that happens. His character must have had at least a streak of hotheadedness for him to act that way, but again, we never see it.

This "Othello" has no low points, and no major flaws. If the actors turn up the energy a few notches and continue to flesh out their characters, they may well perfect an already first-rate show by the end of the run.


***

WHAT: "Othello"

WHERE: Folger Theatre, 201 E. Capitol St. SE

WHEN: Through June 16

TICKETS: $15 to $41


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