Of Shakespeare's plays, "Othello," with its themes of love, jealousy, lust, betrayal and bigotry, probably hits the most nerves. At Center Stage, director Irene Lewis' production strips those nerves raw.
There are several reasons for the production's gut-wrenching effect, beginning with Stephen Markle's relentlessly chilling performance as Iago. In this production, set in the 1950s with the military portrayed as Marines, Markle's Iago is the type of gritty career soldier who excels in war. In peacetime, he is at such a loss that he instigates a battle simply because it's the only way he knows how to function.
Wrapped even tighter than "Caine Mutiny's" Captain Queeg, Markle's Iago doesn't nervously toy with ball bearings like Queeg; instead, his hand is rarely without his handkerchief -- a small but masterful touch since a handkerchief is the evidence Iago plants to convince Othello that his bride, Desdemona, has been unfaithful.
The elopement of this cultured young lady and the Moor is also readily understandable. Although Desdemona's father is unable to comprehend his daughter's choice, from his first entrance Peter Francis James is as irresistible as a movie star. Suave and self-assured in his formal uniform, he speaks Shakespeare's poetry in honeyed tones.
Lewis erases any doubt about the depth of the newlyweds' feelings by depicting their passion in intimate terms. Reunited in Cyprus, they are unable to keep their hands off each other in front of Othello's men. And in the final tragic scene, seeing Diana LaMar's Desdemona briefly in the nude increases our devastation over their shattered intimacy.
But LaMar also makes it clear that this is not a marriage based solely on physical attraction. Adorned in designer Paul Tazewell's elegant gowns, the actress appears as delicate as the late Audrey Hepburn. However, this is a Desdemona who knows her own mind. Her devotion to Othello never wavers because she realizes, even when he doesn't, that he is not himself.
Most of the supporting roles are also skillfully depicted. Caitlin O'Connell is a worldly military wife as Iago's ill-used Emilia, but she is imbued with all the integrity her husband lacks. As Cassio, Matt Servitto makes the lieutenant's drunken lapse seem more choreographed than sinister, but his reserve proves a fitting foil to the other characters' dangerous excesses. And Conan McCarty's Roderigo is the epitome of an over-bred society weakling.
Designer Christopher Barreca places the action in a cube-shaped, black metallic set whose sliding doors and panels suggest a giant steel trap. That, no doubt, is the way Iago visualizes his mind, but in the end, he is ensnared in his own trap.
Indeed, in a production that gives Shakespeare's violence frightening immediacy -- a dueling scene becomes a pool hall brawl, and two murders are committed by swiftly and brutally breaking the victims' necks -- Markle's scheming mind is the most frightening of all.
Although Shakespeare named his play for Othello, it is Iago who initiates and controls the action. Markle delivers such a bravura performance as this calculating villain that one hesitates to imagine what he could do as Richard III.
Where: Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; matinees at 2 p.m. most Saturdays and Sundays, and at 1 p.m. March 9. Through March 20. (Audio-described performance at 2 p.m. March 20; sign-interpreted performance at 2 p.m. March 12)
Call: (410) 332-0033; TDD: (410) 332-4240