Dark Victory

Othello at the Shakespeare Theatre CompanyWashington City Paperby Trey Graham

Brooks and Page go man-to-man in Kahn's trad ShakespeareIntrigue’s no basic instinct for Patrick Page’s Iago: He’s an artful opportunist, not a born schemer, prone to plotting on the fly rather than working from a plan, more adept at making trouble out of what happenstance hands him, fashioning nasty little traps from the takings of the day. He seems a breezy sort of villain, slapping backsides and scribbling sedition in his little leather notebook, until the remoteness in his glance betrays the pathology behind the prankster’s pose. The play’s still called Othello, of course, and Avery Brooks comes unmoored interestingly enough, but the evening belongs to Page’s insinuating improviser, a Rove-ing reporter of irrefutable half-truths and intoxicating lies.

The surprise is in how few showy surprises director Michael Kahn serves up. His company’s two previous takes on Othello turned on race-conscious casting choices—the compatriotic Iago of African-American actor Andre Braugher opposite Brooks’ Othello in 1990, the unusually pale Moor of the “photo-negative” 1997 production that centered on the star turn of Patrick Stewart. But both of those were staged by guest directors; Kahn’s reading turns out to be straightforward Shakespeare, all gowns and crowns (or doges’ caps, anyway) and impeccable diction, and its surprises are in its startlingly lucid delineation of the psychological warfare that plays out on Cyprus.

And, admittedly, in how languid it feels now and again. No, let’s say “stately,” in deference to the polish and the poise pretty much everyone’s displaying. The long first act takes its time getting into gear, but there’s plenty to savor in Kahn’s careful scene-building. Watch Brooks’ audience of Venetian nobles, rapt as snake-charmed chickens while the court’s most influential outsider narrates how he won the love of a blueblood with tales of battles and bravery. Watch Iago watching Colleen Delany’s Desdemona, cataloging details from Othello’s account that he’ll twist to use against them before the act is over. Follow the plot from Venetian council chambers to Cypriot fortifications, and watch Othello’s loose, happy body language grow cautious and crabbed as Iago’s poisonous whispers convince him he’s been played for a fool, cuckolded by his lieutenant and duped by a jaded Venetian wife who only loved him—if she ever did—for the romance of his adventures and the novelty of his black skin.

Listen, too—to Brooks’ rumbly, resonant basso, to the easy authority of his tone as he commands troops and convinces politicians. Listen to the timorous accents of his would-be rival Roderigo (effectively ineffectual Erik Steele), whose dandyish ineptitude makes him an easy pawn in Iago’s schemes. And listen, especially, to the crispness and clarity of that schemer’s asides to the audience, those here’s-what-I’m-planning speeches that can seem so unnecessary and so tedious: In Page’s pitch-perfect performance, they’re the quicksilver calculations of a first-class sociopath, the deliberations of a man who knows his end and couldn’t care less about the means.

Everybody’s got a line on Iago—he’s ambitious, he’s jealous, he’s peeved about a missed promotion, he’s convinced Othello and Cassio both have “’twixt my sheets…done my office.” This Iago is all these things—they’re in Shakespeare’s lines, and Page’s language is clean and crisp as new snow—but none of them are what drives this Iago. There’s something more troubling.

“Everyone’s life is an act—we play ourselves,” mused the eternal observer Ned Rorem, paraphrasing Shakespeare’s “All the world’s a stage,” and Page’s Iago is nothing if not a man constantly performing himself, tuning his act to suit the audience at hand. (Harold Bloom would have him a kind of Satan, inspired to mayhem by his Fall away from the war god Othello, and what is Satan but the greatest of deceivers, wearer of infinite masks?) Worldly with Roderigo, deferential with Othello, by turns brisk, coarse, and earnestly friendly with Cassio, he’s all things considered, and utterly inconsiderate behind his disguises. Notice the blank, unmoved expression as Delany’s terrified Desdemona begs him to intervene with a husband grown suddenly, incomprehensibly cruel, then watch him snap into character as she lifts her gaze: It’s masterful, a portrait of a man so subsumed in role-playing that he can only mime emotion, so thoroughly given over to games, to winning, that he can’t feel anything for those he toys with and defeats.

Brooks, for his part, makes his character’s defeat poignant enough. Othello’s always something of a conundrum, a general savvy enough to succeed as a foreigner in what’s essentially the regional superpower of its day, but at a loss once the action cools and he’s engaged by a guerrilla adversary on the domestic front. Imposingly tall, with immense, expressive hands, Brooks invests the Moor with confidence and no little dignity; watch the sureness with which he subdues a pack of swordsmen with a word. From the start, though, he’s palpably aware of how his position is shifting in a society that won’t ever genuinely see him as one of its own. It’s a sensible choice: That outsiderdom, of course, is precisely the vulnerability Iago will exploit.

Gregory Wooddell cuts a believably green figure as the untested, unsuspicious Cassio, and Delany’s instinct for finely tuned vulnerability serves Desdemona nicely. (After Pericles’ put-upon Thaisa and Othello’s strangled Desdemona, though, after sad, sweet Sally Talley and bleak Yorkshire realist Doreen and Chekhov’s poor ruined Nina, it may be time for a local house to give her a less tragic sort of woman to play, if only to let us see her stretch.) Only Lise Bruneau, as Iago’s much-abused wife, sounds an odd note in an otherwise well-tuned production; her Emilia seems too collected, too sensible and worldly and self-possessed, to be an uncomprehending party to the deceptions she permits.

The upholstery, as you’d expect from the Shakespeare Theatre—pardon, the Shakespeare Theatre Company, so rechristened to distinguish the ensemble from its venues—is slick and substantial, but thoroughly in keeping with what seems to be Kahn’s overall emphasis on clarity; it never for an instant intrudes. Jess Goldstein’s costumes are sumptuous and apt, with virile, warlike leathers pointedly distinguishing Othello and his men from the silked and velveted Venetian politicos. James Noone’s bare, barnlike wood-slat walls shift gracefully to serve as both the palazzos of La Serenissima and Othello’s frontier garrison at Cyprus; Charlie Morrison illuminates them and the players they frame with Dürer’s sense of what contrasting lights and darks can do. The showiest bit of Martin Desjardins’ sound design is an economical storm effect that makes much of a moody scene transition, and Adam Wernick’s score features the usual mournful strings and woe-tinged woodwinds, along with something that sounds startlingly like a banjo in the early going—an aptly conflicted noise, that, to accompany the blithe beginnings of a marriage that will end badly.

That it ends badly is a foregone conclusion, and that the players amble a bit as they approach the final fatalities is perhaps a trifle trying. Patience is a virtue, though—and virtue’s reward here turns out to be an indelible final image, as Page’s triumphant, trapped Iago strains against the captors who’d carry him away from the scene of his nightmare conquest, desperately drinking in the final tableau in the dark drama he’s been so carefully stage-managing. That his audience finds him horrifying couldn’t matter less—and that we understand him so thoroughly, as we shake our heads and mutter our way up the aisles, couldn’t matter more.

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