The Baltimore Shakespeare Festival has inaugurated its new home, a church, with a play that besmirches much that is holy. This contrast between setting and subject matter sharply heightens the conflict between goodness and evil, innocence and corruption, that is at the core of one of Shakespeare's greatest tragedies, Othello.
Besides introducing its permanent home in Hampden, the production also marks another significant turning point for the company - its first major contract with Actors' Equity, the professional actors' union, since the festival nearly foundered in 1998.
Although eschewing any significant unconventional insights, director Tony Tsendeas' Othello does its new home proud and features several performances - most notably that of Megan Anderson as Othello's bride, Desdemona - that offer great promise for the company's entry into the ranks of fully professional theaters.
To start with the physical space - St. Mary's has been converted into an intimate 220-seat theater, with pews newly mounted on graduated platforms to improve sightlines. It's a warm, welcoming space whose spiritual underpinning is gradually replaced by a dire chill as Shakespeare's marital tragedy moves inexorably toward its fatal conclusion.
Designer John Raley has created scenery that never lets the audience forget the holiness that is lost. The central element of Raley's two-level set is a series of movable archways that mimic the church's gothic architecture. Unlike the church's arches, however, the set's arches shift, at one point closing in on Othello as his world becomes increasingly uncertain and he becomes trapped by jealousy.
Despite its title, Othello really belongs to Iago, one of Shakespeare's most heinous and amoral villains. The character who sets the plot in motion and propels it along, Iago is also the largest role in the Shakespearean canon.
The Baltimore Shakespeare Festival suffered a potential setback halfway into rehearsals when the actor originally cast as Iago left the production for a role in John Waters' new movie. With only two weeks until opening night, the festival's artistic director, James Kinstle, gamely stepped into the role.
Kinstle's effort is impressive in large part because of his restraint and lack of grandstanding. He plays Iago as a man who is concocting his evil scheme as he goes along; we can see his mind working in his very first monologue.
Later, he allows himself a brief moment of delight as he realizes things are working out even better than he could have hoped: He has duped noble but disgraced Cassio (portrayed by Neal Freeman as an officer of innate decency) into inadvertently fueling Othello's jealousy by appealing to Desdemona. After this, everything falls so neatly into place, all Kinstle's Iago has to do is sit back and watch the rest of his nefarious stratagem unfold.
If Iago is pure evil, then Desdemona is pure innocence. It's fitting, therefore, that Anderson initially plays her as girlish - but not naive. Desdemona is, after all, a young woman who knows her own mind; she has risked everything to marry a man of a different race, age and background. She matures quickly, however, as the play progresses, and her final scene with Iago's more worldly wife, Emilia (affectingly played by Jewel Orem), is among the evening's most moving.
In the title role, Jeorge Watson is adequate but not inspired. Over the centuries, critics have attempted to fill in the blanks Shakespeare left concerning his main characters' behavior - to understand what motivates Iago or why Othello so readily believes his intimations of an affair between Desdemona and Cassio. Critic Harold Bloom, for instance, writes about Iago's possible sexual impotence and contends that Othello's and Desdemona's marriage is never consummated.
Director Tsendeas, however, takes a more traditional route, infusing the play with unmistakable sensuality. Nowhere is the sexual component in Othello's and Desdemona's marriage more evident than in the manner in which Tsendeas stages her murder. Similarly, sensuality is at the heart of Iago and Emilia's marriage - just watch the way Iago extracts Desdemona's telltale handkerchief from his wife's bodice.
Instead of taking risks with characterizations, Tsendeas' stab at innovation comes in the more technical aspects of the production. The most effective of these are the silent, hooded figures - reminiscent of Kurokos, or on-stage stagehands in traditional Japanese Bunraku and Kabuki theater - who shift the scenery's moving arches and lurk about like incarnations of encroaching catastrophe. Others, however, such as the expressionistic projections of a maze, a spiral and staring eyes in Scott Rosenfeld's lighting design, or the more pointed music cues in Dave Cradle's sound design, are too overt for a play that is already far from subtle.
But these are rare exceptions in a mostly solid production that is well acted and shows off the company's new home to advantage.
Where: Baltimore Shakespeare Festival at St. Mary's Outreach Center, 3900 Roland Ave.
When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays and 10:30 a.m. Thursdays. Through Oct. 26