With earsplitting audio effects rivaling those of the latest Michael Bay films movie sequel “Transformers” , the Folger Theatre’s new production of William Shakespeare’s Othello is geared toward attracting a new generation to the brilliance of the Bard. And it just may succeed.
Loud, lavish, and epic in scope, this concept bristles with passion and energy starkly contrasting the play’s “Worlds of Warcraft” historical sweep with its tender, unconventional romance gone horribly wrong.
Conceived and directed by Robert Richmond, he re-imagines Othello not so much as a tale of jealousy and Venetian behind-the-scenes intrigue as a story of quasi-religious conflict. This he accomplishes by trundling the drama into his Wayback Machine, transporting the action to Othello’s native Cyprus, circa the 13th century A.D., the time of the Crusades when the world seemed to hang in the balance between resurgent Christianity and militant Islam.
Fortunately, Richmond doesn’t overplay his directorial hand here. Rather, his approach subtly re-tunes the play’s central military conflict toward religious rather than racial differences, although all of Iago’s nasty opinions on the latter remain intact.
Insofar as the production itself is concerned, it’s a real swashbuckler, in case we didn’t already make that clear. The Folger’s tiny, tiny performance space is hugely enlarged via a number of tricks both old and new. True, we’ve attended several productions that make use of the balcony areas adjacent to the main stage. But rarely have we seen center and back stages so skillfully deployed.
Designed by Tony Cisek, center stage is initially covered with gossamer curtains, hung at ceiling height, initially serving to veil a sexy bedroom pantomime. The curtains disappear to provide room for the initial Venetian setting where Othello receives his latest battle orders and where various courtiers intrigue against him. But then, in a startling transformation, the curtains are unfurled on the horizontal and brilliantly illuminated in martial reds and oranges to become a gigantic Middle-Eastern battle tent with the backstage area transformed into a more intimate boudoir-style setting.
William Ivey Long’s lavish costumes and Andrew Griffin’s imaginative lighting designs add to the illusion. And Anthony Cochrane’s music, while sometimes overly bombastic in Matthew M. Nielson’s sound scheme, helps fill out the bill, although we wish there were a little less of the elevator riffs in the play’s quieter scenes.
At climactic moments, even the center aisle is transformed into a battleground, considerably enlarging the scope of the production. This isn’t the usual self-conscious breaking down of the “fourth wall.” Rather, it’s a successful attempt to maximize the theatrical space and involve the audience in the action.
All the special effects in the world, though, wouldn’t help if the Folger hadn’t recruited a fine cast of thespians to make the magic happen. As Othello, Owiso Odera, in his Folger debut, is a sleek, dashing hero, initially in full command of his forces and his faculties but rapidly succumbing to his fatal weakness, jealousy, sending him on a wild and ultimately fatal hallucinatory journey. It’s an original, riveting performance.
As the arch-villain Iago, Ian Merrill Peakes takes a highly original turn. His Iago seethes with a different flavor of jealousy. But he plays it out in an almost antic manner, bemusedly toying with Othello while slowly strangling this hero’s world. It’s reminiscent of a comic book bad guy who laughs with delight even as he sets worlds on fire. It actually shouldn’t work, but it does, and it’s the most original approach to this character we’ve ever seen.
Janie Brookshire’s Desdemona is the perfect third character in this deadly triangle. Fresh, youthful, innocent, strikingly beautiful, and very much in love with her hero, Brookshire’s winsome character ultimately creates the maximum horror as her innocence is dragged inexorably into the hell of Iago’s scheming and her own husband’s insane jealousy and possessiveness.
Secondary characters are well portrayed here as well. Thomas Keegan’s Cassio is the male side of innocence. Betrayed by his own over-fondness for the bottle, he tries to regain Othello’s favor but only plays into Iago’s devious trap. Karen Peakes’ Emilia is antic yet strong and true. And as Roderigo and Lodovico, Louis Butelli and Joe Guzman are excellent foils to Iago’s schemes.
Othello runs thru Dec 4, 2011 at Folger Theatre, 201 E. Capitol St SE, Washington, DC.
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Robert Richmond
Produced by Folger Theatre
Reviewed by Terry Ponick