November 3, 2011 at 3:09 pm EDT | by Patrick Folliard
Dueling ‘Othellos’

Owiso Odera and Ian Merrill Peakes in the Folger Theatre production. (Photo by Carol Pratt; courtesy of Folger Theatre)

Through December
Folger Theatre
201 East Capitol Street, SE

Closes Sunday
Synetic Theater
1800 South Bell Street, Crystal City

Jealousy can be a dangerous emotion. In Shakespeare’s “Othello,” it’s downright lethal. Local audiences can see two vastly different takes on the dark drama at the Folger Theatre on Capitol Hill, and (if you act fast) Synetic Theater in Crystal City.

Director Robert Richmond’s Folger production sets the action during the Crusades and casts Othello as a Templar Knight, underlining the Moor’s unparalleled ascent to power. As Othello, Owiso Odera displays an innate princely confidence and occasional cockiness that works beautifully to further ignite the fury of his secretly sworn enemy Iago, played by a charmingly villainous Ian Merrill Peakes. From the start, the audience is made aware of the extent of Iago’s shocking duplicity and expects him, like most of Shakespeare’s bad guys, to meet his fate at the end of a blade by the end of the evening. Instead he’s sentenced to a smorgasbord of torture.

Despite some hammy moments, Richmond’s “Othello” is an exciting and visceral interpretation. When Odera’s darkly handsome Othello awakens a sleeping Desdemona (the luminous Janie Brookshire) to punish her for alleged sexual misdeeds with her friend Cassio (Thomas Keegan) by strangling her to death (it takes several tries before she eventually dies), it’s intense for sure. And the subsequent scenes in which Iago’s distraught wife Emilia (Karen Peakes) reveals Iago’s ongoing deception and quickly meets a horrific fate, followed by Othello’s devastating realization and a tragic ending of his own, are equally compelling.

This production reunites gay designers William Ivey Long and Tony Cisek who collaborated on last season’s Folger hit “Henry VIII.” Both take brilliant advantage of the tragedy’s disparate regions and climes. As the action moves from Venice via sea to Cyprus, Long’s costumes change from capes, fur-trimmed coats and chain mail to open shirts and sandals. Similarly, Cisek’s dazzling set morphs from a towering canopy bed elaborately crowned in carved wood to magistrate’s office to billowing ship sails to a fabulously appointed Bedouin tent (not entirely Cyprian, but beautiful still).

Synetic’s “Othello” is the second of three revivals featured in the terrific company’s “Speak No More: The Silent Shakespeare Festival.” As the title suggests, the 90-minute show is interpreted solely through movement. And while the uber-fit actors don’t utter a peep about a “green-eyed monster” or “beast with two backs,” all the elements of jealousy and lusty passion are fully conveyed through Paata Tsikurishvili smart staging and Irina Tsikurishvili’s insanely inventive and sexy choreography.

Instead of one of Iago, Synetic has opted to go with three. They’re united when the primary Iago played by a maniacally gleeful Philip Fletcher (who is gay) pulls his two alter egos (Synetic vets Alex Mills and Irina Tsikurishvili) through a Mylar mirror. At times the potent trio overpowers the production’s Othello (Roger Payano), but never for too long. The talented and well built Payano definitely holds his own among a strong cast. In fact, it was Payano who first inspired Synetic to mount “Othello” when it premiered last season.

In ways, the challenge with “Othello” is to buy into Iago’s all-consuming hate for the title character and to believe a man will turn on his beloved wife based on pretty flimsy evidence. Both productions do well convincing on these counts; still, as with so much of Shakespeare, audiences just have to go with it, remembering that jealousy can make people do ugly things.

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