In a world hardly lacking for villains or villainous motivations, Shakespeare's "Othello" retains its ability to confront and stir.
Time has not dulled this tale of a small-minded man who topples a better, braver fellow by unleashing that most debilitating of human emotions — jealousy. That the tragic flow of action comes with a layer of racial prejudice, a curse we have yet to escape from, only adds to the weight of a play first performed four centuries ago.
For its season opener, Chesapeake Shakespeare Company offers a welcome staging of "Othello." There could be even more fire or finesse here and there, but the venture serves the work in sturdy, fluent fashion. (Some trims and tweaks of the text have been taken.)
Stylish props are whisked on and off an otherwise bare stage to provide sufficient flavor as the scenes unfold. The costumes (Jacy Barber) give a vaguely late-19th-century look to the men, and a not entirely convincing harem look for the women.
Ian Gallanar, the company's founding artistic director, guides the cast with a sure hand, maintaining an effective pulse that underlines just how quickly and unstoppably an evil plan can be set in motion.
As Othello, the Moorish general of Venetian forces who becomes the unsuspecting target of that plan, Jason B. McIntosh has the physical stature and vocal richness to dominate the production. He doesn't do that enough.
The actor, his arms mostly stiff at his sides, gives a rather laid-back, even distant performance much of the time. That doesn't make it easy to see why Othello would enjoy such confidence from the leaders of Venice; such unrestricted love from his new wife, Desdemona (Diane Curley); such hatred from Iago (Jose Guzman), the officer who is determined to extract vengeance after being passed over for promotion.
Still, McIntosh hits the spot when it comes to expressing rage and, after becoming "an honorable murderer," remorse. In the closing minutes, his whole frame seems to shrink from the weight of the truth, his voice registers each degree of pain and confusion.
Guzman's Iago leaps into the proceedings and reveals no end of charm and smarm. The actor brings abundant nuance to his lines, adding especially delicate tones when the character feigns honesty, and has the smooth moves of a nimble dancer. It's a vital, assured portrayal at every turn.
Desdemona becomes a decidedly forceful presence, with Curley stressing the woman's backbone. A sweeter, warmer touch could be effective early on, but emphasizing the character's sense of worth and duty pays dividends. And the actress handles the final scene with great sensitivity, helping to make the inevitable all the more affecting.
Giving the production another boost is Briana Manente as Iago's wife and Desdemona's maidservant, Emilia. She fleshes out the role tellingly, paying equal attention to the woman's naivete, devotion and sauciness. As the play rushes to its terrible end and Emilia tries to clarify the foul business, Manente generates terrific emotional intensity.
Other standouts in the cast: Stephen Lopez, who evokes quiet authority with an elegant articulation of text as the Duke of Venice; Elliott Kashner, as a nervous, unusually flighty Roderigo; and Jeff Keogh as Desdemona's bigoted father. Alex Miletich IV does mostly persuasive work in the role of Cassio, Iago's principal pawn.
Gallanar brings out the play's intermittent bouts of tension-relieving humor and tosses in a few bits of his own, including a quicksilver dance step for Iago and Roderigo. The songful scene when Iago gets Cassio drunk is staged with particular flair.
Some ideas get overused — Othello wiping away tears; Iago making a "yuk" sound after someone he loathes departs the stage. Repetition diminishes the impact.
And while a jazzy soundtrack with occasional Arabic touches fits the production neatly, the music's intrusion at the final fade-out strikes the wrong note. Silence would be a great deal more powerful.