San Diego, CA---Something is rotten in Venice and it is called Iago. He lives and thrives in Shakespeare’s ‘claustrophobic’ tragedy “Othello” which opens the summer Shakespeare Festival on the Lowell Davies Festival Stage through July 27th. The Globe’s artistic director Barry Edelstein directs it.
It is a daring and electrifying production with an all around even cast headed by Blair Underwood as the naïve general, Othello, whose happiness with his beautiful and fair Desdemona (effectively played by Kristin Connolly) is upended by his closest and ‘most trusted’ friend Iago played by Richard Thomas with cunning and controlled menace.
In the background are hums of eerie violin sounds mixed with the pounding of the drumbeats and the piercing gongs of cymbals, triangles and a variety of instruments I could not identify, adding more to the tension building between Iago and Othello. It runs like thunder through the body vibe.
The Moor, Othello, secretly married Desdemona, senator Brabantio (Mike Sears) daughter without his permission, which was not a kosher move in 1500 Venice or any other time, for that matter. That said this particular setting is in 19th century Venice making Katherine Ross’ costumes19th century European designs elegant and regal looking. In some respects Thomas resembled Napoleon as he stood at the rim of the stage, at one time lighting up what looked like a small cigar, steely eyed and talking of plotting to overthrow his master.
Oblivious to it all, Underwood’s Othello is like a happy child, trusting and relishing his new wife and lover, his praises for his conquests and eventually, although misguided, his acceptance by his new father in law of his marriage to his daughter. Unfortunately his reverie rapidly evaporates by those, unbeknownst to him, plotting against him.
Making matters worse for the great general of the Venetian armies, he promotes his handsome, less experienced Cassio to be his lieutenant bypassing his ensign Iago, who felt the job, should have gone to him. Jealously and rage engulf this already cunning being and over the course of the play he slowly and methodically builds a case of infidelity between the beautiful Desdemona and Othello’s lieutenant Cassio. “I Hate Him”, he shouts in an angry outburst.
Throughout Othello praises Iago as one of his most faithful and honest friends. In comparison, Iago has so much hatred and contempt for his commander that his every move is smothered in revenge and vileness. Thomas, as most will remember as John-Boy in The Waltons many moons ago, resembles not the innocent youngster seen on TV by millions each week, but rather a cold and calculating enemy of the people bent on destroying everything in his path including his own wife Emilia (Angela Reed gives a powerful and convincing performance) but in particular Cassio and Othello. Caught in the crossfires is the beautiful and trusting Desdemona.
Set against an all white cast (for the most part), Othello represents ‘The Other”, much like the Jew Shylock in Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice” seen on the outdoor stage last year. One cannot help but think about the roles prejudice and xenophobia play in these two Shakespearean plays. On the other end of the spectrum, sexual harassment in his “Taming of the Shrew” speaks volumes as well. Director Edelstein goes so far as to give Othello a sort of Jamaican accent and dreadlocks, differentiating and isolating him from the others even further. (I found the accent a distraction.)
How beautiful and natural Othello and Desdemona look together as the loving couple and as lovers. Both Underwood and Connolly are able to create the chemistry one needs to believe their relationship only to gasp at how little time it takes Othello to be swayed by Iago that his wife is/was unfaithful, and with Othello’s trusted lieutenant Cassio. (Noah Bean is most convincing.)
That it takes only two or three days for Iago to build a case against all odds convincing the mighty warrior his Desdemona was with another is almost plausible (and I use the word deliberately) as it never gives Othello time to think. Shakespeare speeds the narrative compressing it to ‘the double time effect’. She never saw it coming, and he in a distracted rage of indecision was willing to be ‘as tenderly be led by th’ nose… As asses are’, without question.
Watching the death scene play out as emotions reached pitch performance was, for yours truly, excruciating as all three, Othello, Desdemona and finally Emilia, all at the top of their game give powerful and striking performances. (“Yet she must die, else she’ll betray more men. Put out the light and put out the light”.)
Technically, all systems are a go. Acme Sound Partners with Jason Crystal designed the music played by Jonathan Hepfer and Ryan Nestor. The instruments and musicians located off to the side of the stage which was designed to look like aluminum sheet metal corrugated fences and moveable walls by Wilson Chin giving a closed feel, were well illuminated by Stephen Strawbridge’s lighting design.
As tragedies go, this one goes by the book (although shortened) and with great support Edelstein, Thomas and Underwood make it work.
See you at the theatre.
Dates: Through July 27th
Organization: The Old Globe
Production Type: Tragedy
Where: Balboa Park, 1353 Old Globe Way
Ticket Prices: Start At $29.00
Venue: Lowell Davies Festival Stage