Through March 27
Sidney Harman Hall
610 F St., N.W.
The green-eyed monster is back and running amok on Shakespeare Theatre Company’s stage.
No other Shakespeare work deals more directly with jealousy than “Othello.” It’s jealousy that reduces the disciplined title character to a brutish murderer. In past STC productions, Othello has been played twice by African-American actor Avery Brooks and once by Patrick Stewart, a white actor in an otherwise almost entirely African-American cast. This time, Brazilian director Ron Daniels has cast Faran Tahir, an American actor of Pakistani descent as the tragic hero.
The action kicks off in Venice where Othello, a self-made Moorish general and Christian convert, has secretly married Desdemona (Ryman Sneed), the fair daughter of an aristocratic house. Fueled by racism and rancor, Othello’s standard bearer and supposed best friend Iago (Jonno Roberts) vows to use Desdemona to destroy rising young officer Cassio (Patrick Vaill) and bring down Othello.
Called to war with longtime enemy Turkey, the soldiers set off to outpost island Cypress. Desdemona follows. It’s here that Iago’s machinations go into play. He convinces Othello that his wife is cuckolding him with handsome Cassio. Othello suffocated in feelings of insecurity and suspicion, causing him to fall into paroxysms of jealousy and make some seriously bad life decisions.
In director Daniels’ hands, the story unfolds lucidly — every turn of the plot is clear. But aspects of the production lack passion. Othello and Desdemona’s connection is rather tepid. It seems Othello’s fire is saved for jealousy. But even so, the moments before Desdemona’s death come off more like a domestic squabble than a woman fighting for her life.
As Othello, Tahar (a stage and screen actor best known for his work on TV’s “American Crime”) initially appears to be the avuncular general. When his men get too rowdy, he quiets them like a schoolmaster chastising a roomful of naughty schoolboys. But the longer he remains in Cypress and longer Iago has his ear, the more he changes. Othello eschews his military uniform for a loose-fitting exotic robe and trades his dignity for rash behavior.
Roberts has the best handle on the language and unlike much of the cast, he never swallows his words. His Iago is every man’s most intimate friend. From the start, the audience is made aware of the extent of Iago’s treachery and expects him to come to a bad end. And indeed he does. After his wife Emilia (Merritt Janson) connects the dots and reveals Iago’s evil deeds he is sentenced to be tortured in the most horrific ways imaginable.
Daniels has set production just after World War I. Riccardo Hernandez’s striking set is a bare stage backed by five outsized turbines, bright headlights. Arriving in Cypress, the soldiers raise a huge banner depicting the Venetian lion of St. Mark. Costume designer Emily Rebholz turns out a handsome mix of military and civilian wear including, Iago’s brown leather trench coat, high riding boots, formal cutaways and white linen travel suits evocative of “Downton Abbey” season two.
Like always, the challenge with “Othello” is to buy into Iago’s epic hatred for Othello, and to believe that a shrewd, worldly general might be so easily convinced that his new wife is cheating on him despite her most sincere and reasonable protestations. But that’s the nature of jealousy, isn’t it?