Patrick Page is nothing if not resourceful, and what the actor cooks up for his final exit in Michael Kahn’s unadorned new “Othello” tells you heaps about his scabrous Iago. The bodies of Desdemona and Othello lie together in bed; the body of Iago’s wife, Emilia, is splayed on the floor beside them and Iago, architect of all their violent ends, hovers nearby, remorselessly, in custody.
What is the demonic mastermind of “Othello” thinking about? As guards lead Iago out of the bedchamber, Page offers a clue: pride of workmanship. Page’s Iago can’t take his eyes off his victims. The gaze is carnal, reflective of some indecent appetite. At the door, Iago cranes his neck for a last peek at the macabre spectacle he’s orchestrated — a killer whose only regret is that he’s not allowed more time with his kill.
A small, arresting moment such as this attests to the intelligence guiding the production, the first to be presented under the troupe’s revised title, Shakespeare Theatre Company. Nothing fancy-schmancy in the directorial approach here: no ornate mise-en-scene, no explicit tinkering with the time element. In this faithful, straightforward rendition — set in an interior of bare wooden floors and walls — Kahn offers unfettered access to actors and text. This is not a paucity of imagination, but a veteran director’s way of paying respect.
The result is an “Othello” at all times engrossing, and yet ultimately less than devastating. It’s hard to say whether the muted impact is Kahn’s responsibility or Shakespeare’s: You may count yourself, as I do, among those unable to thoroughly invest in the curious transformation Othello undergoes, at one instant entranced by his adoring young wife, the very next, convinced by the flimsiest evidence that she has been with another man. It takes a romantic coupling of inordinate consequence, one that frees an audience from the constraints of logic, to set the play ablaze and deliver an ending redolent of tragedy. Although Avery Brooks’s Othello and Colleen Delany’s Desdemona are handsome and finely spoken, their match is more that of collector and keepsake than of besotted lovers blindsided by evil.
The production, in fact, steers clear of anything too demonstrative. Though the play prescribes the usual dosage of Shakespearean bloodshed, Kahn eschews stage blood. When pricked, his principals expire delicately. Othello’s smothering of Desdemona is a case in point: The pillow need only be applied to her face for her to segue easily into the next world. And Othello dispatches himself with a flash of dagger so swift you barely see it. There’s method here, of course. The director is more interested in means than ends — the means being “Othello’s” enigmatic villain and the production’s invaluable central performance.
The last “Othello” at Shakespeare — Jude Kelly’s race-reversed 1997 version with Patrick Stewart as a Caucasian Moor — may have spurred Kahn to exceedingly careful casting. In that staging, the wooden Iago was a crippling deficiency. Page, by contrast, is this production’s keenest asset. He proves to be a genial monster, up to Iago’s gifts for diverting events along any course he chooses. Iago is the most captivating bad boy in all of Shakespeare, and because of him, “Othello” offers the canon’s most irresistible portrait of malice. A good Iago can be seductive not only because he’s one step ahead of everyone else in the play, but also because he knows how much an audience delights in staying in step with him.
Page proves far more subtle and astute here than he was as Macbeth last season at Shakespeare. He’s the kind of actor who seems more comfortable at war with others’ virtue than in torment over his own. His Iago, the embittered subordinate to Othello in the Venetian military, is like some bureaucrat secretly contemptuous of the organization. What he depicts is a smooth under-the-radar operator, the kind of ordinary-seeming man of whom neighbors report to newspapers, “He kept his lawn neat.”
Of all the difficult-to-answer questions about motivation in “Othello,” the issue of Iago’s need to systematically destroy Othello remains one of the thorniest. He assures us early on that he “hates the Moor,” that Othello has passed him over for promotion in favor of the dashing Cassio (Gregory Wooddell). Yet the trigger for revenge is eternally foggy. This production offers a tantalizing assortment of hints: a moment in a tavern when a stone-faced Iago is humiliatingly reminded of Cassio’s higher rank; a surprisingly intimate exchange, in which Iago tries to linger over a kiss with Desdemona; an offhand remark that suggests Iago’s jealousy over a supposed advance by Othello toward Iago’s own beleaguered wife, Emilia (Lise Bruneau).
The most interesting possibility, though, is another encouraged by Kahn and Page: None of the above — that, if you burrow too deeply into a twisted mind, you come up with a blank.
The majestic Othello can be a thankless role, mostly because he’s so easily bamboozled. Brooks, his voice as soothing as a lullaby, hits the right notes of arrogance and entitlement, but his and Delany’s performances never quite click. Desdemona, the untroubled rich girl who runs off with Othello against the wishes of her father (played with sure-footed charisma by David Sabin), has too much of the furrowed brow here. The sense of unease Delany communicates sets the dark clouds gathering too quickly.
Erik Steele, though, makes a perfect fool of Iago’s dupe, Roderigo, and Bruneau’s Emilia persuasively embodies the exhausting, bottled anger of a neglected wife. They’ve all been dressed beautifully — leather trench-style coats and knee-high boots for men, bright gowns for Desdemona — by Jess Goldstein.
Even if the sorrows of “Othello” do not play out here in pounding waves, satisfying ripples remain in the unmasking of affable Iago, betrayed by the wife he has all but discarded. The face of evil is, it seems, all the more startling when it looks like the guy next door.
Othello, by William Shakespeare. Directed by Michael Kahn. Set, James Noone; lighting, Charlie Morrison; composer, Adam Wernick; sound, Martin Desjardins; fight director, Paul Dennhardt. With Ralph Cosham, W. Alan Nebelthau, Laurence Drozd, Andrea Cirie. Approximately 3 hours 15 minutes. Through Oct. 30 at Shakespeare Theatre Company, 450 Seventh St. NW. Call 202-547-1122 or visit http:/ / www.shakespearetheatre.org .