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Play detective with me for a minute. A man—disciplined, accomplished, well-respected—suddenly strangles his brand-new wife in a jealous rage and then kills himself. He throws away a life and career he built painstakingly over decades, and all because of the insinuations of a mousy little assistant whom he passed over for promotion and had every reason to distrust. Tell me, lieutenant: Doesn’t something seem fishy here? Why should the man crack in the first place? Isn’t this case missing a fact or two?
And yet so many readings of Othello amount to just this scenario, better suited for tabloids than literature. Of course, the assistant is Iago, a sociopath so cunning and driven he’d make Saddam Hussein blush. But an audience has to understand how Othello’s situation—a black man whom the white world needs but won’t fully admit—primes him to become Iago’s plaything. Othello thrives through stoicism, enduring slurs behind a wall of reason and self-control. But he can’t maintain the mask forever; and when he finds love, a tsunami of his less-savory emotions also rushes in. If a director doesn’t make plain Othello’s fundamental trap, his meltdown will always leave you detached, not chilled.
I bring all this up because the new Othello at the Folger has so much going for it (including the best Iago you could imagine) that you have to ask why it isn’t even better. Aaron Posner certainly guides the affair with inventiveness. But he merely nods to the racist fault lines of Othello’s Renaissance Venice and thus fails to frame the whole drama. Into that void slithers Trey Lyford’s Iago, who will mesmerize you into nearly forgetting that the play’s not named after him. It’s great stuff, but possibly a little less than the author intended.
Othello (Craig Wallace) serves Venice’s Duke (Thomas Oullette) as the equivalent of a four-star general. He’s a celebrity and a frequent dinner guest in all the best homes. But when the bigwig Brabantio (Lawrence Redmond) finds out that Othello’s been wooing Desdemona (Suli Holum), his blond-bombshell daughter, Brabantio morphs into Lester Maddox—reeling off miscegenation fantasies and threatening to have Othello hung from the nearest crossbeam. Unfazed, Othello asks that Desdemona speak for herself. His faith in due process borders on naivete; even when Desdemona confirms the match and the Duke approves, the smell of blood freights the air. The lovers are taking the plunge into a sea full of sharks.
And the great white one is Iago. What’s he got against Othello? Well, the general did tap Cassio (Dwayne Nitz) over Iago for his lieutenant. And Iago has a cuckold’s fantasy of his own, involving his wife, Emilia (Holly Twyford), and the general. But these are just fig leaves. Iago lays waste because he can—because he’s supremely good at it. Like the devil, he works the gap between reality and assumption, gently guiding people to ruin through their own vanity and blind spots.
Flitting back and forth between Othello, Cassio, Desdemona, and Desdemona’s hapless suitor, Roderigo (Scot McKenzie), Iago spins a web of innuendo and pretended alliance. He doesn’t stop at getting Cassio cashiered, or stealing Roderigo’s life savings. Exploiting Othello’s A-to-B cast of mind, Iago sets up a trail of clues that convinces the general that Cassio has been boffing his wife all along. And then he gets Roderigo and Cassio to butcher each other in the dark. By the last act of Othello, the air is so thick with his schemes you half-expect to see their equations floating above him.
Lyford’s Iago even looks a little like Satan—sharp teeth and an elfin face ringed with scruff. But that’s not the reason he feels dangerous. This monster draws you in with irresistible confidence and an unnerving insight into everyone’s weaknesses. A chameleon, he’s whatever he needs to be—pal, therapist, loyal subordinate, threatening husband—to get what he wants. Lyford’s frosty American accent puts you in mind of Mamet, of people you wouldn’t want to be alone with for five minutes. And then he turns to the audience for yet another confiding monologue, and you find yourself agreeing that the other characters are dolts and should be laid low. It’s a deliciously discomforting performance that you and your friends might argue about for weeks afterward.
There’s also plenty to like in Posner’s direction, especially in how he uses Tony Cisek’s set of granite blocks and a dull gold mesh that aptly looks like a cage (as well as, when paired with a balcony window, the sliding door of a confessional). His best idea puts Othello and Iago at fencing practice as Iago confesses his “suspicions” of Cassio: the swordplay accents their to-and-fro argument. Other scenes he stages simultaneously, as if they’re tragic-opera duets. Dan Covey’s expressionist lighting changes on a dime to demarcate public and inner spaces, and Scott Burgess provides an agreeable soundtrack wash from the balcony. (Unfortunately, the audience can see him noodling away—which is traditional but also distracts.)
But Posner doesn’t do nearly enough with the soon-to-be unhappy couple. Wallace’s Othello and Holum’s Desdemona both start off beautiful and bland, two nuzzling innocents who lack heat or definition. Only when Othello hits the roof do the actors hit their stride—particularly Holum, who has a vivid touch of madness about her as the marriage inexplicably disintegrates. Wallace is riveting and scary as Jealous Othello, but otherwise he has more aristocratic manner than presence (which is diminished further when Posner mikes him with an echo late in the play). Posner also re-creates at least one too many of Othello’s soft-core nightmares about Desdemona’s promiscuity, as if you didn’t already know what the poor man was thinking.
And the director underplays Brabantio’s flagrant racism, which Shakespeare intended to contextualize both Othello and his marriage. Redmond is allowed to deliver his lines without force. Other cast members do better, including Nitz as Cassio (who regards his ruined career with poignant anguish) and McKenzie, whose Roderigo ranges with ease from self-pitying drunk to nervous assassin. As Emilia, Desdemona’s maid and Iago’s abused wife, the always wonderful Twyford is mostly reduced to beaming or frowning at her lady’s ups and downs. But then she blows away everyone in the final death scene, and you wonder why Posner couldn’t have been even more daring and cast her as a bottle-blond Desdemona.
If you have the money and the time, try watching this Othello one night and the Synetic Theater’s stunning silent rendition of Hamlet the next. The textual Shakespeare might feel like logorrhea next to the elegance of Synetic’s miming, which my companion described as a cross between ballet and silent film. But whereas you have to interpret what you see in Synetic’s production, Othello is about seeing and misinterpreting. Synetic’s is a healthier experience, but the Folger’s might be more instructive. You leave the Synetic production wanting more; you leave this one wanting to follow Iago off a cliff. CP