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Reviewed by:
  • Othello
  • Freddi Lipstein
Othello Presented by The Shakespeare Theatre at the Lansburgh Theatre, Washington, D.C. August 30-October 30, 2005. Directed by Michael Kahn. Set by James Noone. Costumes by Jess Goldstein. Lighting by Charlie Morrison. Compositions by Adam Wernick. Sound by Martin Des Jardins. Fights by Paul Dennhardt. With Avery Brooks (Othello), Patrick Page (Iago), Erik Steele (Roderigo), David Sabin (Brabantio), Colleen Delany (Desdemona), Gregory Wooddell (Cassio), Lise Bruneau (Emilia), and others.

Twice before in recent history, the Shakespeare Theatre Company has tackled Othello. The 1990 production featured Avery Brooks as Othello and Andre Braugher as Iago, removing race, at least visually, as a motivation for Iago's hatred of Othello. In 1997, in a photographic negative, Patrick Stewart, directed by Jude Kelly, played a white Othello in an African world. In stark contrast to these experimental efforts, this time around Artistic Director Michael Kahn took a more traditional approach. He set the play roughly in the seventeenth century. The costumes were rich: the soldiers wore leather trench-style coats and high boots of rust and earth tones. Othello wore African robes when not dressed as a soldier. Desdemona's brightly colored gowns provided the only contrast to the earth-tone palette. The set was simple: a series of vertical wooden planks that closed in and were barely lit created a dark Venice; and these planks opened up and were brightly lit for a more refreshing Cypress. For the final bedroom scene, the walls closed in again, adding to the feeling of impending suffocation. The simple costumes and set allowed the production and the audience unfettered access to the text.

Avery Brooks again played Othello, this time as a much older and wiser general, yet a neophyte in matters of the heart. It is often difficult to accept as credible Othello's rapid transformation from doting husband to jealous madman, a weakness more in the text than in a production. This production, however, came the closest of any I have seen to making the sudden about-face believable. By emphasizing Othello's foreignness—he was an outsider in Venetian society, chosen by the Duke's daughter, the ultimate insider (and substantially Othello's junior)—Brooks made his vulnerability to Iago's not-so-subtle suggestions understandable. At the same time, Brooks, who has a sonorous voice, was commanding as a general. And he was even more effective in using his dulcet tones to tell his history in 1.3: it was easy to understand why Desdemona would fall for this Othello.

The star of this production was Patrick Page's Iago. He was quick-witted, intelligent, and completely amoral. Even the most fundamental concepts of right and wrong held no sway for this Iago. Starting with the idea that it is impossible to know another human being, Page created an outward charm and friendship that would have deceived more perceptive folk than those that populate Shakespeare's play. He was a "hail [End Page 79] fellow well met" to his fellow soldiers. He was Othello's, and therefore, Desdemona's, confidante. It would have surprised everyone around him to learn that he abused his wife. This Iago kept his own counsel. He carried a small notebook in his pocket, and when something struck him as particularly nasty or clever, or when he saw a weakness that might be exploited later, he would make note of it. With this device, Page allowed the audience a little peek into Iago's thinking. Iago may hate Othello for a variety of reasons provided in the text, but in this production Kahn staged a few unscripted moments to demonstrate some of the sources of Iago's hatred. For example, during the reveling on the watch, a drunken Cassio loudly reminded Iago that he, Iago, was merely the ensign. There was a long, deafening silence as Iago digested his humiliation.

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Figure 1.

Colleen Delany (Desdemona) and Avery Brooks (Othello) in the Shakespeare Theatre Company's production of Othello. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Notes or no notes, and regardless of the unscripted insults that might have added to Iago's injured ego, one had the...


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