Actors such as Patrick Page, actors who portray the greatest villains in history and literature, walk a taut and treacherous tightrope.
To convincingly portray a man as evil as Iago in Shakespeare's Othello, more is required than merely memorizing lines and showing up at rehearsals. More is required than boning up on the development and motivation of psychopaths, though Page has done all of that. More is required, even, than identifying and empathizing with this most cunning deceiver and betrayer.
Instead, an actor must understand Iago well enough to almost, but not quite, become that master manipulator. The role demands an actor who is not only brave, but also self-confident enough to know that he can cross the chasm without toppling into it.
"I've had a year to think about this part, which is pretty dangerous," Page says.
That year is up, and Othello, starring Page and Avery Brooks in the title role, began previews this week at the Shakespeare Theatre.
Page, 43, may feel that danger especially keenly because he has made a mini-specialty of portraying villains, or, at the very least, complex and troubled men.
Page's roster includes that notorious child-killer, Richard III and, on Broadway, Scar in The Lion King. His Macbeth last year for the Shakespeare Theatre Company was an incisive depiction of a good man succumbing to evil.
Moreover, this is his second attempt to grapple with Iago's complexities. He performed the role for the Utah Shakespeare Festival in the late 1980s.
"It's almost more satisfying to come back the second or third time," he says. "You never, ever reach the bottom of these characters."
For Page, a key event occurs before the play begins, when Iago unexpectedly loses his status as the hero's right-hand man. "This play to a large extent is what happens after Iago suffers an incredible blow to his self-esteem," Page says. "He will do anything and sacrifice anyone to re-establish his shattered view of himself."
But while Iago is ruthless, he is no Dr. No.
"Iago is a brilliant psychologist, but he is not a mastermind who plans everything in advance," Page says. "He's an improviser. He's making it up as he goes along. He has no idea that it's going to end this way. He's like a novelist who's writing a book and the characters take over.
"Where Iago stumps himself constantly is that he lacks any kind of creative thought," Page says. "He doesn't devise anything. He's a magpie who grabs at things that cross his path and uses them to his advantage."
Every child, of course, does something similar. As a boy, Page succumbed to the world of make-believe in which he had been steeped since infancy.
His father is an actor and theater professor at Western Oregon University, so props and costumes were part of Page's childhood, and as a boy, he performed small roles in his father's productions.
"Saying 'forsooth' was as familiar to me as saying 'palm tree,'" he says.
After graduating from Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., Page considered graduate school but could never take enough time away from his burgeoning acting career to enroll.
He spent nine years as a mainstay at the Shakespeare festivals in Oregon and Utah, then moved to New York in the early 1990s. He has lived in Manhattan ever since.
About 10 years ago, while playing the candlestick, Lumiere, in the national touring production of Beauty and the Beast, Page began flirting with a cute little feather duster named Babette.
The couple later married; Babette now is known to national audiences as Paige Davis, who until recently hosted TLC's Trading Spaces.
At first, that might seem like a marriage of utter opposites. But if you think about it, Patrick Page engages in his own brand of construction and redesign. He opens up and airs out for our perusal some of the darkest and most twisting corridors of the human mind.
"Othello" runs through Oct. 30 at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, 450 Seventh St. N.W., Washington. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Tickets: $14.25-$71.25. For information, call 202-547-1122, or go to www.shakespearedc.org.
For more theater, classical music and dance events, see Page 30.