by Michael Bowen
Two men stroll into a courtyard, their rapiers trailing behind them, so quiet you can hear the trickle of the plaza fountain. Director Nike Imoru's unhurried opening for Othello (at Interplayers through May 7) signals that this won't be operatic Shakespeare. As sadistic intentions simmer beneath the powdered white wigs and the patterned brocade, subtleties are all we have to go on. The plots begin to hatch.
The chief plotter is Alex Robertson's Iago -- a snake, and a smart one. More than most villains, he operates as intellect twisted, perverted: a master puppeteer who manipulates from afar, enmeshing lovers and do-gooders in webs of their own devising. More than in most productions, this Othello presents a series of increasingly complex puzzles for Iago to solve -- and Robertson, sharp and sinister, solves them all. Whether he's duping Roderigo (a delightfully scrawny-foolish Patrick Treadway) or manipulating Othello with flimsy evidence, Robertson and Imoru clearly have decided to keep Iago self-effacing and operating on the periphery. Even during the two temptation scenes, Iago circles his quarry at a distance, with Imoru keeping Othello apart from the tormentor he trusts as "honest, honest Iago." Robertson is cool, calm and venomous in the role -- the famous motive-hunting is dismissed as mere intellectual gaming. This is an Iago who doesn't feel considerations of jealousy, ambition, cuckoldry or homoerotic desire. But then sociopaths don't feel much of anything anyway. They just ruin people's lives for the hell of it.
What Iago ruins is the fairy tale marriage of Desdemona and Othello, the Debutante and the Jock. She's the rich white girl; he's the accomplished general with the skin color that simply isn't acceptable in the best circles of Venetian society. (Unless of course the Turkish fleet is attacking and you really, really need a military leader.)
Kate Parker finds self-possession and respectful defiance in the society girl. Petite but deep-voiced, she conveys credulity (over Othello's wooing methods), resistance (when he insists on a husband's authority) and revulsion (in recoiling from Iago's comforting embrace).
Reginald Andre Jackson's high, thin voice misses the famous Othello music in the wooing speech and elsewhere in the opening acts. A small, young man -- but full of quiet intensity -- he's not going to deliver James Earl Jones profundity in the role. Once set on the deluded road to revenge, however, he uses contemporary urban mannerisms to convey the descent into maddening jealousy: Laurence Fishburne laced with traces of Chris Rock.
The payoff in Jackson's deliberate transition from quiet to manic arrives in the later scenes, when he repudiates Cassio for violating orders, holds a knife to Iago's throat and slaps his wife full in the face. Once Jackson unleashes his storm of jealousy, he loses control so convincingly that he just, might, go, all, the, way.
Others among the cast of 12, almost equally divided among Seattle and Spokane actors, include Casey D. Brown, vocally impressive as Cassio. Though he inexplicably flattens the "Reputation, reputation" speech into a bored monotone, ruining it, Brown is convincing as the pious straight arrow who salutes impressively, only to descend into courtesans and binge drinking.
Maynard Villers' Brabantio, burly and bewildered, laments his daughter's hasty marriage to Venice's most impressive military commander, who just happens to be black. Must've been by magic -- no other way to explain it.
Aside, though, from Jackson's excellent delivery of Othello's self-hating line about the moral deficiency of his own face's blackness, this isn't a production that makes much of racial tension.
Despite the elegant, late 18th-century look, this is a fantasy Charleston-Venice: The slave trade and plantation mentality may be in full swing, yet somehow racial and gender equity operate here, with a black general and a duchess (Ann Whiteman, efficient but able to make a joke under pressure) running military operations.
The costumes, by D.J., descend suitably from Age of Reason elegance (a sky-blue gown for Desdemona, long red velvet for Othello) to Age of Irrationality disorder (Othello loses his wig and coat and buttons).
But Imoru isn't going to hit you over the head with insanity, race or politics. And her reading -- Othello as closet tragedy -- demands much from the audience. (It's over an hour and a half until intermission, with a lot of subtleties flying past.) But this production repays close attention, too.
At the outset of the death scene, for example, Imoru dispenses with the "Put out the light" speech, finding a visual equivalent in Dean Panttaja's set and lighting scheme: As Desdemona sleeps, Othello's wavering, threatening shadow hovers behind gauze curtains. It's a chilling moment.
Iago will eventually pay for his hideous deeds, and Imoru turns this promise of justice into a communal chant ("O Spartan dog") shared by four actors, as if to underscore how desirable -- and unobtainable -- justice is on this side of the grave. Addressing us directly at the end, one character implores us to enforce goodness and defeat evil. But in
Othello, the best not only lack all conviction, they don't even have much self-awareness. At the end, Iago isn't yet dead. He lives on among us.
Publication date: 04/21/05