Great performances are often defined by the ease with which an actor plays his role, and this certainly applies to the entire cast of the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival's Othello. Director Fontaine Syer has put together a crystal clear and near flawless production that tells the story of a villain who does evil simply because he can, a man barely accepted by society who is more emotionally fragile than he lets on, and a woman who is undone because she loves too well.
Although the supporting actors are all strong, a large part of what makes this production so arresting is the performances of David Alan Anderson (Othello) and Ian Merrill Peakes (Iago). Their interplay is casual and natural, and both men speak the Shakespearian text as though they had been born to it. As Othello, Anderson strides through his soldiers with self-assurance and a slight touch of arrogance. His descent into jealousy-driven husband is spot on; never does it seem forced or false.
It is Peakes's Iago, however, that truly drives the production. His is a terribly casual evil; rather than brood and ponder, this Iago idly wonders how he can best ruin lives in much the same manner one might consider the weather. Nothing is of any consequence to him, and he gives so little away that it becomes maddening to try to determine what he is really thinking at any given point. In the final moment of the first half, Iago vows his allegiance and friendship to Othello. Before the blackout, however, a light lingers on the newly promoted Iago, who does not so much as smirk. Comments that madden Othello are spoken completely off the cuff. In only a few cleverly chosen instances, such as when young Cassio jests about the promotion Iago did not receive, do we see Iago for the danger we know he is.
At the center of it all stands Desdemona, played with a haunting beauty by Vanessa Ballam. Despite her husband's accusations, Ballam's Desdemona retains what dignity she can. One cannot help but ache for her as she intervenes on Cassio's behalf to her husband, unwittingly sealing her doom simply because she wishes to restore a friendship for her husband's happiness. Her handmaid Emilia (Susan Riley Stevens) — who is also Iago's wife - is also given an exceptional performance. Her husband relegates her to the shadows for so much of the play that when she finally cries, "I must speak!" at the end, one feels she is referring not only to the truth of the handkerchief's theft, but to an entire lifetime of submission to a wicked man.
The production uses a small thrust stage with minimal set decoration. For the majority of the play, two benches and two smaller square units suffice, with a balcony running along the upstage wall that is decorated with archways. Overall, the space has the feel of a Medieval cathedral, but scenic designer Bob Phillips adds richly detailed touches throughout. Brocade covers are brought out for the benches to suggest various locales, and the bedroom is simply lovely. Echoing the set, Marla Jurglanis's costumes are often simply designed, but stunning detail work makes them come alive. And Syer stages the play beautifully, making excellent use of the arena space.
The production runs for only one week more, and I highly suggest attending. This is one of the finest pieces of theatre I have seen this entire season, and it is well worth the trip out to Allentown.
Othello runs through August 6 at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, on the DeSales University campus. Tuesdays at 7pm, Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8pm, and Saturday and Sunday at 2pm. Tickets are available by phone at 610-282-WILL, or online at www.pashakespeare.org. Ticket prices $30-$41.