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Shakespeare Theatre’s new “photo-negative” Othello begins with so many attention-grabbers—a stage floor that cants sharply to the right, an auditorium-chilling downpour (front-row patrons will want to bypass the lobby cloakroom until intermission), a blaring fanfare, men’s costumes in bright greens, oranges, and purples—that its introduction of Patrick Stewart as a Caucasian Moor in an otherwise African Venice qualifies as downright subdued.

He’s discovered in a public square, whirling happily as Desdemona pelts him with rose petals from her bridal bouquet. A barbed tattoo circles his left ear, giving him a vaguely savage look, but his manner is that of a man in love. A thoughtful, cautious man, as it happens. For, with a pallor that makes him an outcast in a dark-skinned population, he must contain his emotions in public, remaining calm even when informed of a potential lynch mob headed his way.

That Othello’s control will give way to jealous rages and furious sorrows as Iago drips poisonous doubts in his ear is a given, even in a world where black is white and white black. Almost equally a given is that audiences will find these rages and sorrows less compelling than the machinations of the folks most affected by them. Shakespeare packed the play with terrific secondary roles—Desdemona, perhaps the toughest of the Bard’s tragic wives, Cassio, a stalwart soldier who pays dearly for a single error in judgment, Emilia, torn by divided loyalties, and of course, her monster of a husband, Iago, who is, hands down, the Bard’s most devious villain.

One of the chief problems faced by productions of Othello—whether conventional, like the one starring James Earl Jones and Christopher Plummer a decade ago, or middleground, like the black Othello/black Iago one headed by Avery Brooks and Andre Braugher, or brazenly nontraditional, like this one—is how to maintain focus on the noble, unassailably virtuous, but not terribly interesting title character as all these fascinatingly flawed folks buzz around him. Celebrity casting is the most common solution, by which token you’d have to say that any production centered on Stewart—perhaps the world’s most widely recognized classically trained actor—starts out way ahead.

And indeed, from the first syllables he utters, it’s clear Stewart’s Othello will have no trouble commanding audience attention. He’s appealing, articulate, and intelligent. Almost too intelligent, actually, to be led quite so easily by Iago or to descend into the sort of uncontrolled despair the author will ask of him. But there’s an undercurrent of anxiety in him, too—one that has him grimacing at the thought of love lost even as he’s expressing love profound. Once Othello is away from Venice, he’s required to mine veins of fierceness that aren’t really Stewart’s forte, but the actor manages to make his battle to control his furies seem nearly as intense as the furies usually are. He goes overboard a couple of times, most notably when making horror-movie faces while swearing revenge, but by and large his anguish is of a decidedly reserved sort—comprehensible more than moving, but effective nonetheless.

To complement Stewart’s carefully calibrated Othello, director Jude Kelly has Ron Canada playing Iago not as a brilliant, audience-courting schemer but as a note-taking, ass-covering career soldier. The cleverness in Canada’s Iago is all in the writing, not the playing. He’s forever scribbling in his notebook, never looking anyone in the eye, deliberately blending into the background, where he can do his dirty work without being noticed. This is a bit deflating for the audience, but clearly tips the stage balance in favor of Othello.

So for once (and pretty much independently of the race-reversal production concept) the stage seems set for the focus to return to the title character. But oddly enough, it doesn’t. Most Othellos are upstaged by their Iagos. This one is probably the first ever to be upstaged by Iago’s wife. From the moment Franchelle Stewart Dorn makes her startling entrance as Emilia—haggard, defensive, immediately identifiable as a battered spouse—she tells you more about Iago through her body language than you learn from the man himself in all his soliloquies.

And darned if his villainy doesn’t steal focus just as sharply through her as it usually does through him. Dorn, let’s be clear, has never done better work. She’s not showboating, but no matter how unimportant her presence seems in any given scene, you can’t take your eyes off her. There’s a haunting moment when Othello asks Desdemona about that missing handkerchief that will prove so central to his suspicions about her, and Dorn’s Emilia steps forward and almost says something. She could, you suddenly realize, put everything right between these two with a single sentence, and she knows it, but her insecurity shuts her up just long enough that the opportunity passes.

Teagle F. Bougere’s engagingly earnest Cassio has a similar moment, one of many in which the character’s basic decency betrays him. And he’s remarkably precise in his scenes with Patrice Johnson’s Desdemona, expressing a respect you can imagine Othello misinterpreting from afar as affection. For her part, Johnson is ravishing if vocally shrill, and while her blushing bride seems a tad overprepared for her father’s questions early on, she’s persuasively in over her head thereafter.

Kelly has had quite a few good ideas—about, say, justifying a teetotaling Cassio’s drinking binge, or illustrating the disdain Othello’s battle-ready Purple Berets have for their short-pantsed, lighter-skinned, Foreign Legionish allies in Cyprus—but she has also had some clunkers. At one point, Iago spends long minutes scribbling Desdemona’s supposed transgressions (“kisses in private,” “handkerchief,” and so forth) on a classroom whiteboard, solely so the director can have him underline the second and third syllables in Des-demon-a for Othello’s benefit. That the Moor should fall into a swoon at this revelation (what might he have done had Iago penned “Ot-hell-o”) could only be persuasive had he been presented as either wildly superstitious or a fan of acrostics.

The director’s decision to turn Desdemona’s suitor, Roderigo, into flat-out comic relief (Jimonn Cole comes on like the singer once known as Prince and gets progressively more effete throughout the evening) also seems ill-advised. Still, these are hardly major lapses. For the most part, the performances are as carefully thought out as the physically fetching production that contains them.

Which is not to suggest that the race-reversal conceit has been exploited to the full, or even to the half. The director’s interest in skin color appears to have ended with her casting choices, as indicated by her use of the studiedly neutral term “photo-negative” to describe the production. Anyone expecting a revelatory, racial re-reading of the text is in for a letdown. But then, there were always risks to pushing too far a concept that was essentially designed to let Stewart play a role denied him in this post-civil rights era. The casting could well have seemed a mere stunt, with audiences fixating solely on race and ignoring character-based causes of the Moor’s downfall (something that would be just as disastrous as their so fixating on Stewart’s TV celebrity that they heard only the verb in Othello’s passionate “I here engage my words”).

Neither calamity happens. Stewart is perfectly plausible as a general undone by his own credulousness, while race in a photo-negative Othello becomes the same nonissue once the Moor’s jealousy kicks in that it does in more conventional productions.

In fact, when Stewart begins a soliloquy a bit before intermission with the words, “Haply, for I am black…” it’s actively startling. “Oh, right,” you find yourself thinking, “this is that race-reversal thing.” Probably all for the best.CP