The play’s final words sum it up best: “This heavy act with heavy heart relate.” The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of William Shakespeare’s Othello is decidedly heavy on the heavy, sonorous and austere.
From the actors’ percussive, martial entrances up from a tunnel backlit by powerful lamps, to the spare, metallic set ornamented with giant turbines and oil drums enveloped in an ever-present penumbra of infernal mist, director Ron Daniels’ vision is dark and powerful to a fault, obfuscating the Bard’s glorious poetry at times.
The story of the Moor of Venice is one of Shakespeare’s most deeply painful tragedies. And while Daniels well-enough captures the doomed, heated atmosphere which propels the drama forward to its finale of destruction—and importantly, stays faithful to the material—it feels exceedingly long to get there. All 160 minutes are felt, in fact. The production doesn’t really pick up and feel tight until later in the show, once Iago’s seed of suspicion is planted and Othello begins to get worked up in response.
The drama’s signature trio—Othello, the powerful but susceptible military man; his innocent wife, Desdemona; and the showcase villain, “honest” Iago, his advisor—take on different characteristics from production to production, providing much intellectual enjoyment from seeing different versions of Shakespeare’s works over time.
In an inspired turn that pays off, Daniels bucked the contemporary tradition of using black actors to play Othello and instead cast Pakistani-American Faran Tahir in the role, more-convincingly approximating the Moorish background of the Muslims of North Africa from where Othello most likely hails. There’s even a beautifully lit scene special to this production in which Othello prays in the Muslim manner, knees, hands and forehead to the floor before committing the tragedy’s most grievous act. It’s an insightful piece of handiwork, giving one the impression that Othello, as a converted Christian in a Christian land never felt completely at ease, and that even after his lofty success, harbors a deep suspicion about his assimilation. Of which of course he is justified, as the audience witnesses a cacophony of racist denigration behind his back.
Tahir captures Othello’s heartbreaking trajectory consummately, from proud elegance to brutish anguish. Unlike some portrayals of the Moor which emphasize a predominant show of strength, Tahir begins the drama unassumingly, urbane and affable. He seems a master of his baser impulses, securely shrugging off his new father-in-law Brabantio’s insulting assertions about his recent nuptials. But as Iago’s poison takes root, Tahir first lets slip needles of doubt and before long is crawling on all fours spewing invective, hands and face clenched in apoplectic rage. He even goes into a vigorous epileptic seizure, an affliction from which Othello is known to suffer but something I’ve never seen done for the role on stage.
Tahir wholly gives himself over to the performance, punctuating the final scenes with powerful denunciations and pleading remonstrance, but he also has an unfortunate tendency to muddy his lines as his shouts become more violent. And being Shakespearean tragedy, shouting is sustained throughout the final scenes.
As everyone knows, Iago is the true star that shines in Othello—at least most of the time. He is the engine of the plot and like all primo mischief-makers from Paradise Lost’s Lucifer on down, an enthralling vessel in service of audience satisfaction. He is the Joker to Othello’s Bruce Wayne. But not here. Jonno Roberts hits all the expected key notes: concealed contempt for the Moor, a rapid-fire wit, perverse humor, and the tendency to rivet the audience’s complicity in his plot. But he’s not really charming, or flamboyant or chilling in the attractive sense or the snake-oil manner, as Iago is sometimes played. The most successful depictions of Iago display a malevolent wickedness that trumps Othello’s rages. Here, when Tahir gets blowing, batten down the hatches, for his volcanic reactions diminish everything (and everyone) else on stage.
Ryman Sneed’s Desdemona is a bit soft and forgettable, though she shines in the Willow song scene. Her voice is lovely and her interaction with Merritt Janson as Iago’s daft but proud wife Emilia is one of the better exchanges; their discourse on whether “women do abuse their husbands in such gross kind,” felt modern and potent.
February 23 – April 2, 2016
Shakespeare Theatre Company
at Sidney Harman Hall
610 F Street NW
Washington, DC 20004
2 hours, 40 minutes with 1 intermission
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Tickets: $59 – $118
Check for discounts
Sadly, there’s not very much to enjoy or take away from the scenic elements. In fact, the exposed set dressing, harsh lighting and little props impress severity, pressuring the performers to rise above the booming void. A lovely hanging Venetian tapestry is out of place and wasted, like a Band-Aid on a decapitated torso. The early battle scene, presented with loud blasts and pulsating strobes is as unnecessary as the tapestry, as everyone wishes to get into the domestic drama sooner.
Emily Rebholz costumes the players neatly in the British Near East style of the days of empire, with the military uniform being the most common on set. With the action taking place in the cosmopolitan Mediterranean world, it was delightful to also see Othello’s nighttime Turkic robes and the courtesan Bianca’s native dress.
Othello by William Shakespeare. Director: Ron Daniels. Featuring Ben Diskant, Jonno Roberts, Rufus Collins, Faran Tahir, Patrick Vaill, Ted van Griethuysen, Elan Zafir, Robbie Gay, Ryman Sneed, Gregory Linington, Merritt Janson, Nastascia Diaz. Scenic design: Riccardo Hernandez. Lighting design: Christopher Akerlind. Costume design: Emily Rebholz. Sound design/composer: Fitz Patton. Stage manager: Cynthia Cahill. Produced by Shakespeare Theatre Company. Reviewed by Roy Maurer.