BWW Review: Shakespeare Theatre's OTHELLO Still Stunning, Fresh

BWW Review: Shakespeare Theatre's OTHELLO Still Stunning, Fresh

Perhaps the most arresting moments in the Shakespeare Theatre Company's revival of Othello come hard upon each other, as Desdemona and Othello are driven to their knees, each in separate scenes, each one desperate for a sign from Heaven. Their marriage in tatters before it could even begin, both are heart-broken with disbelief-disbelief that something so evil could have possibly come between them.

The evil, of course, is the influence of Iago, whose jealousy of his commanding officer Othello not only metastasizes before our very eyes, it infects Othello-and fatally so. But for all the pathos in this, one of Shakespeare's (not to mention the stage's) greatest tragedies, director Ron Daniels has found a way to create an unexpectedly festive atmosphere. Yes, the characters come to a bad end, but let's remember that the Bard was also in the entertainment business, and had to strike a balance between menace and humor, creating and breaking the dramatic tension at lightning speed.

The relationship between Faran Tahir's Othello and Jay Whittaker's Iago is of course the heart of the play, and in a rare twist the two stars create a chemistry that is unafraid to generate the occasional knowing laugh. Even though Shakespeare's Iago is a classic showman musing and plotting with the audience as his co-conspirator, it is still surprising how the irony of the scene is as likely to elicit guffaws as empathy here. There is a risk in this - by the time we reach the final scene, we're as likely to laugh as to catch our breath in shock. But it can be refreshing to watch this play with a critical distance.

Another innovation, of course, is to cast Othello as an actual Moor, which is to say a North African and a Muslim. Shakespeare wrote before the first western, sub-Saharan African slaves arrived in the Virginia colony, and at any rate he was thinking of a decidedly Mediterranean political environment. In the Bard's day, hiring a talented Muslim warrior to fight on behalf of Catholic Venice was more normal than we might think; for centuries, a talented military man could easily change sides and find his fortune leading the army of his country's enemies.

The choice creates a special dynamic in certain scenes, because where Desdemona swears by her Christian faith, Othello prays to the god of the prophet Muhammad. The sight of this general on a prayer rug, on Scenic Designer Riccardo Hernandez's spartan, wood-toned stage, under a truly piercing light (courtesy of Christopher Akerlind's fine design), is unforgettable. And a none-too-subtle reminder that the media portrayal of Muslims today is as nasty and bigoted as it was in Elizabethan England, when the Ottoman Empire's power was at its height.

As Desdemona, Madeleine Rogers gives us all the vulnerability of a teenage bride, many years younger than her husband (again, common in those days), and as a result her emotional collapse is riveting to watch. Pilar Witherspoon, meanwhile, offers the worldly-wise counterpoint of Emilia, Iago's wife and Desdemona's confidante. Iago's suspicion that Emilia might have slept with Othello drives the action, so that throughout the play we sit and wonder whether Iago (like Othello) is simply indulging in dark fantasy, or whether she really did sleep with her husband's boss. To her credit, Witherspoon's Emilia plays her cards close to her chest; in the famous closet scene where the two women discuss marital infidelity she coolly recites a list of reasons why a wife might stray from her husband's bed. Not a hint of whether she speaks from experience, and that is as it should be.

Emily Rebholz's costumes are evocative of the WW I era, all green wool and jodhpurs, very snappy and not a false note to be seen. The choice of period also creates a special opportunity when it comes to dressing Roderigo, the luckless suitor who continues to pine for Desdemona long after his proposal has been rejected. Ben Diskant's Roderigo is a study in foppery, a hilariously clueless Bertie Wooster type; but whatever his misadventures he always knows how to dress for the occasion.

There are several fine turns here - among them Veronica del Cerro's feisty Bianca, and of course Ted Van Griethuysen's elegant, sober Duke - but I keep coming back to Tahir's characterization of Othello, which was long on the bombast and self-assurance of a man convinced of his own impeccable intuition. There are times when his boastful delivery fits-especially when he is addressing his Venetian bosses in a formal setting. But there were too many times when the hands sawed the air even in private, when (presumably) Othello had no need to impress anyone but himself.

Perhaps that is the point here-Othello needs to put on a show of bravado, and because the stakes are so high he simply doesn't know when to turn it off. Still, I can't help thinking that when Tahir returns to the role again in a few years (as well he should) there may be more nuances to his portrayal, which will be just as worth seeing.

Production Photo, left to right: Jay Whittaker as Iago and Faran Tahir as Othello. Photo by Jennifer Reiley.

Running Time: 3 hours, including one 15-minute intermission.

Free-for-All Performances of Othello are August 15-27 at the Sidney Harman Theatre, 610 F Street NW, Washington, DC. Tickets will be handed out on the day of each performance at the Harman Theatre, or you can enter the online lottery for extra seats: for more information visit: www.ShakespeareTheatre.org

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From This Author Andrew White

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