Washington's Shakespeare Theatre Company has produced Othello three times in the past 15 years. What the theater hasn't done with Shakespeare's tale of racism, jealousy and betrayal is cast it traditionally - until now.
In 1997, Othello was played by a white actor (Patrick Stewart) and the rest of the cast was black; in 1990, Othello and villainous Iago were both played by black actors (Avery Brooks and Andre Braugher, respectively).
This time around, Brooks is reprising the title role, but as is standard modern practice, Iago is played by a white actor (Patrick Page). Whatever the racial choices, in this critic's experience, it has been rare to see a production of Othello in which the two lead actors deliver equally accomplished performances. Under Michael Kahn's direction, however, Brooks and Page prove well-matched.
In addition, taking a conventional path appears to have forced everyone to focus on the text, instead of on an overriding concept. It has also resulted in close attention to detail.
Consider the handkerchief. More than one scholar has noted that the plot of Othello hinges on the handkerchief that was Othello's first gift to his bride, Desdemona. When this gift turns up in the wrong hands, it seals her doom.
Kahn builds foreshadowing into his staging by having actors toy with scarves, handkerchiefs, etc., throughout the evening. For example, when Page's Iago hatches his scheme to make the Moor jealous of Desdemona's innocent affection for Cassio, Page menacingly twists a piece of cloth between his fists. And, in the next scene, the courtesan Bianca, who eventually winds up with Desdemona's handkerchief, is seen dancing with a scarf.
The handkerchief is merely a prop. It's the use to which Iago puts this prop that makes it incriminating and makes him so nefarious. Page, who warmed up for this malevolent part with such roles as Macbeth at the Shakespeare Theatre last year and Scar in The Lion King on Broadway, is a sly, chameleon-like Iago - a man who seems to be all things to all people, but who respects no one.
After 15 years, Brooks' interpretation of Othello has deepened. He's also appropriately older than his youthful bride. The added years enhance the playfulness that this aging military man finds in his delayed first love. In one scene, Colleen Delany's Desdemona teasingly pounds Othello's chest with her delicate fists, taunting him into a feigned fight. It's a charming image, but more significantly, it makes Othello's subsequent fury all the more terrifying when Desdemona initially mistakes his anger for more of their affectionate sparring.
One reason the 1990 Brooks-Braugher production was so effective was that casting African-Americans in both major roles gave Othello a reason to trust Iago - they were fellow countrymen on foreign soil. In most cases, it's difficult to understand why Othello so readily accepts Iago's lies about Desdemona. That problem persists here. What Brooks' portrayal suggests, however, is that jealousy affects his character like one of the epileptic seizures to which he is prone. As the play progresses, Brooks' Othello rocks from side to side as if in the initial throes of a seizure.
Delany's Desdemona falls into the common trap of appearing too girlish for a woman who had the gumption to defy her father and society by marrying outside her race. Lise Bruneau, however, is highly sympathetic as Emilia, Iago's more worldly, but misguidedly loyal wife. And, as Roderigo, Desdemona's former - but still besotted - suitor, Erik Steele adds welcome humor to this largely humorless play by making the callow, rich boy a figure of fun.
Among my litmus tests of a production of Othello is whether I care enough about the characters to hope it'll end differently. This production passes that test, although, of course, the ending is as tragic as ever.
The way that Kahn arranges the bodies, however, is eerily reminiscent of most stagings of Romeo and Juliet. It's an apt comparison, since both plays demonstrate that love, no matter how pure, offers little defense against the evils of intolerance.
Where: Shakespeare Theatre Company, 450 Seventh St., N.W., Washington
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, noon Sept. 21 and Oct. 26. Through Oct. 30