It’s practically a cliché, whenever an actor primarily recognizable from screen roles appears on stage, to bemoan his muffled pipes. And yet the early scenes of Brazilian director Ron Daniels’ purposeful, confident Othello for Shakespeare Theatre Company bear it out: Of everyone up there on designer Riccardo Hernandez industrial-minimalist stage, only The Moor of Venice—played by the Pakistani actor Faran Tahir, familiar from big movies like Iron Man and Star Trek (v. 2009) and a few smaller ones like Escape Plan and Jinn; he’s currently a regular on ABC’s American Crime—is ever difficult to understand.
Daniels and Tahir first worked together when then the latter was earning his M.A. at Harvard in the early ’90s, so it’s not as though he’s untrained. Whatever its source, his diction problem had mostly corrected itself before intermission, by which time the deceitful Iago’s suggestion of Desdemona’s infidelity had already driven her new husband Othello to near madness. Lighting designer Christopher Akerlind confines the general and his tormentor in a single, tightly focused beam just prior to the break, a representation of the terrible clarity of the illusion to which Othello has succumbed. Costume designer Emily Rebholz’s suits and military uniforms seem to put us about a century into the past, during the last years of the Ottoman Empire. The oil drums with which Hernandez surrounds his otherwise uncluttered stage (five massive fans line the back wall, as though waiting for a circa-1989 music video to erupt beneath them) link Othello’s military quagmire in Cyprus with contemporary entanglements in the Middle East.
It’s also a cliché to say the villain’s role is richer than the hero’s, but Othello is one of the foundational texts of this line of thinking. Iago is the most blasphemous and unrepentant malefactor in Shakespeare: He ends the play by invoking his Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination, 185 years before the Bill of Rights. Anyone who takes the part enjoys an unfair advantage over his castmates, but Jonno Roberts (last seen at Shakespeare Theatre Company in 2009, playing Edmund opposite Stacy Keach’s King Lear) is an especially ripe vessel for Iago’s satanic reasonableness.
He’s the best thing about the show, bloody hands down. In his first soliloquy, he sits at the foot of the vast stage and beckons us closer, conscripting us all as his conspirators. His victims—not just Othello, but Patrick Vaill’s frail Cassio, and Desdemona’s spurned suitor Rodrigo, and his own wife, Emilia—invariably seem much crazier than he does.
Merritt Janson’s worldly Emilia is more persuasive when she seems to know, or at least suspect, what her husband is up to than when she finds out for certain. Ryman Sneed’s Desdemona, meanwhile, remains stubbornly opaque in her guilelessness, never again finding the resolve she shows in her first scene, wherein she confirms to her father that she has married Othello without his consent. This edit preserves Desdemona’s oft-removed “Willow Song,” foreshadowing her doom. Sneed sings the ballad well, but perhaps her greatest trial comes after her bamboozled husband has smothered her in their bed. Having learned she was innocent of the crime for which he murdered her, Tahir crawls over her weeping. It isn’t just tears, but jellybean-sized beads of sweat that drip from his head onto her face, and still she never stirs. That’s professionalism.
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