BWW Review: Giles Davies is the Finest Iago You'll Ever See in Jobsite Theater's Taut, Exciting Production of William Shakespeare's OTHELLO at the Shimberg
Where does OTHELLO fit in the Shakespeare canon? This is a tougher question than it sounds. Hamlet and King Lear are certainly looked upon as his two greatest masterpieces. Romeo and Juliet, the most popular. MacBeth and Titus Andronicus are the bloodiest. Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night's Dream certainly rank as his funniest. Julius Caesar and As You Like It duke it out with Hamlet as having some of the most quotable monologues. Henry V and Richard III are his top historical dramas. And Richard II and Coriolanus are his most underrated. (For the record, I dare not label any of his works as overrated.)
So where does that leave OTHELLO?
Here's my recommended placement: Shakespeare's OTHELLO, aside from being one of his four Great Tragedies and one of the ten greatest plays ever written, features the Bard's all-time, Grade-A villain, perhaps theater's quintessential bad guy: Iago. Iago's villainy is a sight to behold, a friendly fiend who smiles to your face as he wittingly stabs you in the back and giddily delights in every minute of your downfall. He's a Judas who, unlike the actual doomed Mr. Iscariot, all but laughs at the misfortune he goes out of his way to cause, joyfully proud of the House of Cards he builds and then grinningly watches as they topple over. A probable psychopath, charming and affable, and constantly called "honest" even though his every public moment is a lie. His hatred and contempt know no bounds. And he's complex; his reasons for his contemptible acts constantly change and we really don't know the core behind his misanthropy. This makes him even more interesting. He creates a sort of rhapsody of evil for whatever reasons, winking at the audience so that we seem to be in cahoots with him all along.
And for my money, there has never been a more likable and splendidly sinister Iago as Giles Davies in Jobsite Theater's winning production of OTHELLO, currently playing at the Shimberg. If you put Davies in a show, you just have to sit back and watch the magic explode. I once saw him as a Gravedigger in Hamlet years ago, and he stole the entire show; who cares about the Prince of Denmark's quandary when you have Giles Davies as an epic Gravedigger in the house? With him here, as Shakespeare's ultimate Dick Dastardly, the show becomes a nuclear joy, so full of explosive bits that we come out of it galvanized, not withered. It's an exciting two hours, with Davies taking us on a Luciferian journey--how to destroy an upright nobleman in ten easy lessons. He puts so many subversive spins on his lines, bringing the words, four centuries old, to life in surprising ways. Iago is the star of OTHELLO, and of the many versions of the play that I have gratefully seen, Davies is the best.
But this production works because so many of the actors step up to Davies' greatness and produce some marvelous performances. Robert Richards as the title character, the Moor of Venice, looks like he stands twenty feet tall. He towers over the rest of the cast, speaking his words slowly, deliberately, teeth gritted. Much younger than we are accustomed to, with a mohawk to boot, Richards brings a child-like charm to the part that soon enough turns into a deadly tantrum. He swoons like a teenager in love in his early scenes with Desdemona, and then we watch as he devolves into an embattled monster, almost in need of an exorcism, when jealousy possesses him and ultimately destroys him. There's a moment where he spits out his words, and the saliva sprays the air like a ball of flames from a fire-breather.
Good as Richards is, I have a couple of minor qualms with the performance: First, in his most heated moments, growling like a tiger then barking his lines, with a voice that can shake the interiors of the Shimberg, it is very hard to understand some of Shakespeare's glorious words. Also, in Act 2, he sure gets out of his dramatic onstage seizure very quickly; it's almost like a miraculous healing of sorts after his very intense writhing. But it's a brilliant portrayal overall, and he and Davies play Iago's fatal game of cat and mouse perfectly.
Tatiana Baccari, quite serviceable as Desdemona, lays claim to one of the most horrific and memorable death scenes--smothered by a pillow, screaming until the screams are completely muffled; it's adrenalin-pumping. Katrina Stevenson is a lively and quite saucy Emilia; she can brag of another of the stage's great death scenes. It's also some of the best work I've ever seen from her; she's so good that she gives Davies and Richards a run for their money.
Cornelio "Coky" Aguilera plays a blustery Roderigo for all it's worth, ranting and frothing, but oftentimes due to enunciation issues, we cannot decipher some of his lines. And Chelsea Hooker is a burst of energy as Bianca.
It took me a long while to warm to Joseph Michael-Kenneth's man-bun-donning Cassio, but he won me over with a wonderful drunk scene in the middle of the show, a moment when the fun and party atmosphere turns dark and violent. He handles the change of tone beautifully. The rest of the cast is rounded out by some of our area's finest, including versatile Nancy Mizzell, stalwart Salem Brophy, a disheveled, entertaining Greg Thompson, and the sturdy Michael C. McGreevy looking an awful lot like Walter White.
They all do well with the dialogue, but oftentimes the music played so loud that we couldn't hear the actors at certain key moments.
Director David Jenkins has perfected the art of editing Shakespeare. This is one tight, lean production, but it never feels rushed. It's an exciting piece of theater, guaranteed to accelerate your heart rate. His direction is spot on, and one scene in particular--Roderigo's death lit only by flashlights--is brilliantly rendered and white-knuckled intense.
This version is stylistically all over the place, modern meets old school. It's classic theater in the round, and Brian Smallheer's bare set and lighting, as well as Katrina Stevenson's camo costumes, are quite effective. I personally prefer more specifics to time, place and costumes when dealing with Shakespeare, but Jenkins throws everything in the mix--swords exist along with Bluetooth speakers. In the end, and perhaps in this case only, it doesn't matter the time period where this show is set; the power of the tragedy wins out.
It's been days, and I'm still haunted by images from this OTHELLO. The flashlights, the screams, the booming music as someone gets stabbed, and Iago's eely grin. It's as exciting as Shakespeare gets. And if the name "William Shakespeare" intimidates you, then this is a great introduction. It's never boring; it's an edge-of-your-seat thriller, a tour of personal hell and damnation with the devil himself as your guide. It's one theatrical ride that you will need to experience.
OTHELLO plays at the Shimberg Theater in the Straz Center for the Performing Arts until February 9th.