Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Two Perspectives on Othello
Also see Susan's review of ReEntry
The Folger's production is richly textured and sensuous, from Robert Richmond's impassioned direction, through the luxurious settings and costumes, to the deeply felt performances. It's an exemplary version of the story, acted by performers comfortable both in the text and in their physicality.
Richmond, aided by Tony Cisek's scenic design, sets up the dramatic conflict with an arresting initial image: Othello (Owiso Odera) and Desdemona (Janie Brookshire) embrace on a bed surrounded by billowing sheer curtains, while Iago (Ian Merrill Peakes) stares at them malevolently. The lovers have no idea how fragile their love is and how easily Iago will be able to drive them apart.
Odera is a youthful Othello who believes, since he has prevailed against many dangers, that the worst is past; Brookshire is a spirited Desdemona with backbone as well as beauty. This Othello understands physical threats, but accepts the people around him at face valuealways a bad idea when dealing with someone like Iago.
Peakes manages admirably to camouflage Iago's darkness, making him a sociopath with an ironic smile as he destroys the lives of the people around him. (Shakespeare did not write the line "One may smile, and smile, and be a villain" to refer to Iago, but he might as well have.) Emilia (Karen Peakes), Iago's wife and Desdemona's confidante, is delightfully sharp-tongued until she realizes exactly what's going on.
Richmond has set this production at the time of the Crusades, so the soldiers of Venice wear the Christian cross on their robes and Cyprus offers such temptations as hookahs and belly dancersand Othello, the Moor, has forsaken Islam to become the most austere of Catholic knights.
Tony Award winner William Ivey Long has designed costumes of luscious brocade, silver-studded leather, and elaborate embroidery, and Cisek's scenery blossoms with intense color. Matthew M. Nielson's sound design brings the audience inside the growing disorder of Othello's mind.
Sometimes this process is literal: when buffoonish Roderigo (Vato Tsikurishvili) compares the marriage of Othello to Desdemona with the mating of a large black ram and a white ewe, two members of the ensemble playfully enact that scenario. Elsewhere, the adaptation reaches beyond the original text to bring out the psychological resonances, showing why Othello (Roger Payano) treasures the handkerchief he later gives to Desdemona (Salma Shaw), andmost strikinglypresenting the way anger and frustration cause Iago's character to splinter into three personas (Philip Fletcher, Irina Tsikurishvili, Alex Mills). The three Iagos swarm like large insects as they torment Othello.
Irina Tsikurishvili also created the choreography, especially vivid in the struggles between muscular Payano and boyish Cassio (Scott Brown).
Where the Folger's production creates a setting of beauty and comfort, Synetic's visual palette is more sharp-edged and grim. Anastasia R. Simes has designed a set of jagged, triangular panels and color-coordinated costumes: the Venetians wear mostly black and white, with patches of red for Iago, Emilia (Irina Koval) and Bianca (Sarah Taurchini), and foolish Roderigo wears a yellow hat and sash. Synetic also incorporates a swirling battle scene between the Venetians, with their cross-shaped weapons, and the orange-robed Turks armed with crescent-shaped shields.
Folger Theatre Synetic Theater