Using a concept devised by lead actor Patrick Stewart, the radical interpretation of "Othello" at Washington's Shakespeare Theatre flips the racial makeup of the cast, posing a white Othello opposite an almost entirely African-American company.
Described by director Jude Kelly as a "photo negative," this rethinking is one of several bold and largely successful choices in a production that also features an increased emphasis on abuse against women. Combined with Stewart's strong showing in the title role, this "Othello" would be a landmark if it weren't marred by a weak co-star.
The Shakespeare Theatre has tinkered with the racial balance of "Othello" before, casting a black actor, Andre Braugher, as Iago in its 1990 production. This new version goes to greater extremes while retaining the text's references to "black" Othello.
It is a tribute to the concept as well as Stewart's performance that the initial awkwardness falls away as early as his second scene, when his imposing Othello defends his marriage to his shocked new father-in-law, explaining that Desdemona "loved me for the dangers I had passed,/And I loved her that she did pity them."
Shrugging his shoulders, as if to say that her reaction surprised him, too, Stewart, who possesses a calm assuredness at the start of the play, lets the theater's predominantly white audience experience how completely foreign Othello must have felt in a society where he was viewed as the outsider.
Othello's own disbelief at his good fortune in winning Patrice Johnson's lovely, joyful Desdemona is the chink that cunning Iago needs to destroy him. Ron Canada, however, is a woefully inadequate Iago.
As W. H. Auden correctly asserted, Iago is the engine that drives the action; everything that happens is in reaction to him. But Canada's engine is slow. A paunchy, graying figure, he looks and acts too soft for a man who needs to project anger, resentment and, eventually, downright villainy. Furthermore, Canada delivers all his speeches in the same matter-of-fact tone, whether he is supposed to be conveying the charm that has led everyone to believe him honest or privately reveling in the evil scheme that will be Othello's undoing.
It's tempting to imagine the heights this production might have achieved with a worthier Iago (1990's Braugher, for example), especially since director Kelly has stunningly re-thought so many other elements, chief among them the theme of abuse against women. This is particularly evident in Francelle Stewart Dorn's portrayal of Iago's gentle wife, Emilia. Dorn played the same role in the 1990 production, but this time her Emilia is a cowering victim of spousal abuse who gets up the nerve to oppose her husband only when it is too late.
Johnson's Desdemona is also refreshing. No mere trophy wife, she is a gutsy, playful young woman at the beginning and fights hard for her life at the end.
"Othello" is one of the rare Shakespeare tragedies nearly devoid of humor (the sole clown character is so extraneous, he is generally cut, as he is here). One of Kelly's more unusual innovations is to introduce humor by making Desdemona's spurned suitor, Roderigo, a clown. Jimonn Cole plays him as a foppish, awkward buffoon, and, for the most part, the silliness works. Cole's entrance, however, bawling his eyes out in a rainstorm while toting a broken umbrella, gets the production off on a misguided note -- more a warped "Singin' in the Rain" than the introduction to a Shakespearean tragedy.
There are other problematic touches as well. The dark, vine-like tattoo that covers half of Stewart's bald head is too suggestive of a "Star Trek" alien. And the scene in which Iago presents Othello with evidence of Desdemona's infidelity -- writing phrases such as "kiss in private" and "naked in bed" on a war-room board as if mapping out a battle plan -- comes across ridiculously instead of ominously.
Another chance the production takes is the use of modern dress -- rare for this play, although Center Stage convincingly updated it to the 1950s four seasons ago. In this case, designer Robert Innes Hopkins' modernization eerily recalls the Gulf War, while playing to unspoken fears about the current Middle East threat. The overall purple and orange color scheme, however, carries a more decorative than serious air.
The Shakespeare Theatre's "Othello" has been sold out for weeks, due, no doubt, to Stewart's superstar status. The actor definitely delivers here, both in terms of his performance and his daring production concept. But pairing him with a disappointing Iago deprives a history-making production of the firepower that could have made it great.
Where: Shakespeare Theatre, 450 7th St. N.W., Washington
When: 7: 30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and most Sundays; 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; matinees 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; noon Nov. 26, Dec. 3, 10 and 17. (No performances Nov. 27, Dec. 2, 24, 25.) Through Jan. 4
Tickets: $13.50-$49.50 (sold out); standing room $10, one hour before curtain
Pub Date: 11/19/97