Review: Othello

We should probably become season subscribers of the Washington Shakespeare Theater. I am starting to lose count of the number of Shakespearean plays we have seen in its theater on 7th Street NW in Washington, D.C. (A new theater is under construction nearby.) Their theatrical productions easily outclasses those at the nearby Folger Shakespeare Theater, D.C.’s other Shakespearean theater. By many accounts, The Washington Shakespeare Theater is best Shakespearean theater in the United States.

While most of their shows, if they have not been excellent, have at least been uniformly very good, there have been some less than stellar performances. I was quite disenchanted with the last performance we saw there, The Tempest. In fact, I was so disenchanted that I was a bit leery to return to the theater any time soon.

Happily, the current production of Othello is the best of their productions that I have seen. If you live in the area and can snag a ticket before the show closes on October 30th, buy it and worry about how to pay for it later. This production should not be missed.

However, it does not plow much new ground for Avery Brooks, who plays Othello, a Moor general sent to fight the Turks on Cyprus. For those of you who do not inhabit the Star Trek universe, Brooks is probably best know as Commander (and later Captain) Benjamin Sisko of the space station Deep Space Nine. That series ended in 1999 after a six-year run, but Brooks’s performances of Othello date back to at least 1990. Speaking of Star Trek captains, Patrick Stewart (Captain Jean Luc Picard) also played Othello at the Shakespeare Theater in 1997-1998. (What is that? Stewart didn’t have the right skin tone? Not a problem, he was cast with an otherwise all African American cast. Let us hope though that William Shatner is never asked to perform the role.)

There is no question that Brooks plays a stellar Othello. He is clearly comfortable in the complex and demanding role. Othello though is not the primary character in this play. As those who have read or seen the play performed know, Iago gets most of the stage time. The evil and nefarious Iago sets into motion a complex plot where he plays the weaknesses and desires of the characters against each other, culminating in a plot to have Othello believe that his new wife Desdemona (Colleen Delany) is being unfaithful to him. As is true of most of Shakespeare’s tragedies, you can expect many dead people by the end of the performance. Iago is clearly one of Shakespeare’s most loathsome, yet fascinating characters. In this production, Patrick Page plays Iago. We frequent Shakespeare Theater attendees have seen him before, most recently in the title role of Macbeth. While he was good in that role, he reaches an acting zenith performing the role of Iago. Page seems to have a gift for playing complex and evil characters. While I am sure he has a long and successful career ahead of him, it is hard to imagine that he will be able to top his performance in this production.

In fact, there is not a fault in the entire casting. Brooks and Page play off each other perfectly, and Brooks’s performance is riveting. Nevertheless, make no mistake: it is Page who is center stage throughout most of the play. He brings an oozy creepiness to the role of Iago that I found spellbinding. Yet I was equally fascinated by the performance of some of the minor characters: Emilia (Lise Bruneau) as Iago’s suffering wife, and Bianca (Andrea Cirie) as the smoldering but suffering courtesan who falls in love with Cassio, Othello’s lieutenant.

Listening to the Old English in any of Shakespeare’s plays can be challenging to our modern ears. It is easy to miss important plot points. This is one reason why it is so critical that the actors in Shakespearean productions be excellent. The emotions and tone of voice that the actors convey must make up for the odd choices of words yet communicate the same meaning. I often feel like I miss 5-10% of any Shakespeare production because of language translation difficulties. However, I missed nothing in this production.

In fact, I sat enrapt throughout the entire performance. I felt mesmerized through much of it. A cell phone went off during the first half of the performance that annoyed me. Apparently, cell phones went off twice during the second half. I did not hear them at all. Indeed, there were times during the performance that I breathed in sharply. This was not from fright but simply because I was so drawn into the story that I was not getting sufficient oxygen!

The director Michael Kahn’s intimacy with the play over so many years is probably why this production works so well. It may be more convenient to watch thrillers at your local cinemaplex. Nevertheless, if you live in the Washington area, you will find this Shakespeare classic far better than any thriller you will find in at the cinema. When I think of all the Shakespearean plays that I have seen in my 48 years, this is the best production of them all.

(Important note for Avery Brooks groupies: you get to see him with his shirt off.)

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