It Takes a Villain: The one Iago at Folger stands out rather than blends in.
It Takes a Villain: The one Iago at Folger stands out rather than blends in.

Two theaters I enjoy attending, two directors whose work I’ve liked, two very different but ambitious takes on one play—and neither one really works for me.

Synetic Theater’s Othello, warmly praised in these pages when it was first presented last year, takes wicked Iago’s duplicity one degree further—like Eve, he’s got three faces, with Alex Mills, Irina Tsikurishvili, and Philip Fletcher being charming and seductive and ruthless by turns. Over at the Folger Theatre, meanwhile, director Roger Richmond pushes the action to the 13th century and makes the title character a sort of Venetian superhero—a (literally) caped crusader with a winking, nudging joker of an Iago out to trip him up.

Both stagings look terrific. Richmond, who proved with last year’s lip-smackingly satisfying Henry VIII that he knows how to spend a Folger production budget, again enlists costumier William Ivey Long and scenarist Tony Cisek, and the results are quite literally spectacular: The scene changes in the first act alone, as the action moves from bedroom to legislature to shipboard to Cyprus, are worth a Helen Hayes nomination or three. And anyone who’s ever seen a Synetic show will know that the imagery on offer there ranges from the dazzling to the daring to the downright dirty.

But Iago, who’s arguably Shakespeare’s most successful villain, gets as far as he does not because he stands out, but because he blends so thoroughly in. And there’s so much look-at-me going on in both of these productions that I can’t buy him as the master manipulator he’s meant to be.

At Synetic, the apart-setting goes all the way past the outsize eccentricities of performance (and there are many of those) to the root color scheme: Othello in blacks, the other Venetians in whites, Iago, his co-conspirator wife Emilia, and their dupe Bianca (who’s a more active player in their games here) in garish reds, right down to their hair. No trouble keeping track of alliances in this telling, even without the words to help. Indeed, Synetic’s capacity to communicate incident and motive and character is as acute as ever, even in a story as knotty as this one. (Hapless dandy Roderigo, who’s nobody’s buddy, is the lone character whose costumes are trimmed in yellow— a hue any Shakespeare fan will instantly associate with that other vain and foolish love-schemer, Malvolio.) It’s just that only an utterly obtuse person—which Othello isn’t meant to be—would mistake this Iago for anything other than a game-playing nutcase.

The Folger’s Iago, Ian Merrill Peakes, isn’t as over-the-top demented as the one Fletcher et al put together (and pull apart), but he’s still showier than most, playing asides to the audience and all but rubbing his hands together with glee when a plan comes together. He wants to be liked, this Iago, wants his motivations to be understood; I prefer my sociopaths a little less apologetic.

Then there’s the Folger’s insistent soundscape (Anthony Cochrane is the composer, Matthew M. Nielson the sound designer), which feels as obtrusively manipulative as any middlebrow movie’s. The hiss and rattle of snakes, to punch up a particularly wicked move on Iago’s part? The thrum of plucked-string nerves, as Othello tips over into one of his epileptic fits? The tweedle-chirp of a cell-phone, not once but thrice—no, that was coming from the audience, but it wasn’t much more distracting.

Worse still is the blandness of the acting ensemble, from Karen Peakes’ reedy Emilia up to and including Owiso Odera and Janie Brookshire as Othello and his Desdemona, between whom there is not a whiff of chemistry, despite several momentum-killing embraces devoted to convincing us otherwise. I’d have more appetite for the off-to-the-Crusades conceit—and I’d take more pleasure in Richmond’s infatuation with spectacle—if the basics of text and character had been better covered.

There’s no text to worry about at Synetic, of course, and fewer uneven performances to complain about, though that production’s Othello (Roger Payano) is among the least distinctive figures onstage. The play’s tragic hero is always eclipsed to some extent by its astoundingly depraved villain, of course, but the focus on Iago’s multifarious personalities moves his victim further than usual from the story’s center.

I wouldn’t want to suggest that either of these productions sets out to trump substance with style, because I know everyone involved is thinking harder than that. But the two get tangled up sufficiently, both in Synetic’s wordless whirl and in the Folger’s faith-based reading, that Shakespeare’s Othello doesn’t come too clearly through.