New approach enlivens Othello at Folger

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Michael Toscano

It is always a joy to find something new and unexpected about an old favorite, especially something that’s been around as long as Shakespeare’s Othello. And so there’s great fun at Folger Theatre on Capitol Hill, where director Robert Richmond is giving us a fresh take on Othello.

With this tragedy, Shakespeare focuses not on great events, the clash of kingdoms or mighty political manipulations. No, the battlefield here is in and around the bedchamber, and the manipulation takes place on an intimate, human scale.

Because the title character is an accomplished African general, a Christian Moor who has wed the daughter of a senator of Venice, it is race that usually colors all that occurs. That’s still here, of course, but Richmond finds new shades of intrigue in this visually striking and fast-paced production.

Religious, not racial, divides

Richmond has moved Othello to the Christian Crusades of the 13th century, where, as Richmond writes, “Venetians, Cypriots, Turks and Moors might co-exist — a time when…racial divides were defined by religion.”

Thus, as the characters move from early scenes in Venice to the island of Cyprus, religion replaces race as the essential element. The Venetians become the Knights Templar, out to conquer the Muslim Turks on Cyprus, a place the Christians deem barbaric.

With this change in emphasis, Richmond finds ironic tones, even comedy, not usually in evidence. Yet, Shakespeare’s themes of treachery and jealousy remain highlighted in vivid relief.

Othello (Owiso Odera, in his Folger debut) is still a Moor, still the classic outsider in a “white” world. But there is more to explore now, as we see religion as the organizing force in this time and place.

An unexpected benefit of the change in emphasis is that it takes some of our attention off Othello, lucky in this case because Odera turns in an off-kilter performance. Othello is a general, a leader of men and a virile lover who has captured the heart of beautiful Desdemona (Janie Brookshire, also new to Folger).

But Odera never displays a commanding presence. He does not stride with confidence. His movement is rapid and delicate, more politician than soldier.

A good general must be both, of course, but Odera never lets us see what qualities this man possesses that have propelled him to such heights in a foreign society, or why a lusty young woman would be attracted to him. There are no sparks between Othello and Desdemona to be found here, despite a captivatingly sensual turn from Brookshire.

As the story unfolds, Othello is driven to the brink of madness by trickery-induced jealousy. But Odera’s performance is so brittle that the deterioration into histrionics doesn’t have its usual shocking effect.

Different take on a villain

Fortunately, we have Folger veteran Ian Merrill Peakes on hand as the great Shakespearean villain, Iago, the most vile and evil of them all, many say.

Iago seems to have conflicting explanations for his hatred of Othello and why he schemes to undermine the Moor’s marriage and resort to murder to achieve his relatively insignificant ends.

Is it sufficient that he’s angry the general has passed him over for promotion? Does he really suspect Othello has bedded his own wife, Emilia? (By the way, Emilia is played by Peakes’ real-life wife, Karen Peakes.) Or perhaps Iago has his own romantic feelings for Othello?

The ambiguity in motivation leads most actors to conclude that Iago’s just evil, and they play him that way. There’s plenty of material there for an actor to revel in, but Peakes has found another, quite intriguing way: Iago is just bored.

He’s a world-weary cynic who seeks relief from ennui and self-absorption by plotting against the leading figure in his world. He doesn’t care what it may cost him; he’s willing to go down causing grief.

This fuels his comic scenes with Roderigo (Louis Butelli), a foolish man with his own designs on Desdemona. Butelli eschews his character’s dark side (he’s willing to murder, after all) and plays him as a human Irish Setter, happy, friendly, and not very bright.

Dynamic sound and sets

Richmond moves us through the story at a rapid pace. Energy never lags and there’s always something happening on the stage, in the aisle, or in the balconies. The production values are sumptuous and unusually effective in propelling action and in creating and sustaining mood.

Composer Anthony Cochrane has crafted a soundtrack that punctuates and underscores the action, sometimes in startling fashion. Andrew F. Griffin’s dynamic lighting moves us from dawn to darkness with an ever-changing tapestry of radiance.

It’s all played out on Tony Cisek’s clever set, which makes perhaps the best use of the Folger’s Elizabethan Theatre’s limited space you may see.

At the start, in Venice, the whole world seems to be a bed, a self-contained and cosseted space of massive draped cloths. But with some impressive timing and skillful movement (aided by crashing sound and eye-dazzling lighting), the oversized bedchamber becomes the scene of a violent ocean crossing, which then morphs into an opulent Arabian court on Cyprus.

More surprises follow, all handled smoothly and contributing to a potently exotic ambiance. It’s exhilarating.

So even if the Moor is less here, this is an Othello you’ll enjoy for its energy, irony and fresh nuance.

Show details

Othello continues through Dec. 4 at Folger Theatre, located at the Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 E. Capitol St., S.E., Washington, DC. There is limited on-street parking in the neighborhood around the Folger Shakespeare Library, as well as wheelchair-accessible parking space available in front of the Folger building.

The theater is four blocks from the Capitol South Metro station on the Orange and Blue lines, and seven blocks from the Union Station stop on the Red Line.

There will be a post-show discussion with the cast following the 7:30 p.m. performance on Thursday, Nov. 10. The production will feature open captioning on Sunday, November 20 at 2 p.m. In open captioning, a caption board sits at the front of the stage, scrolling the entire text of the production.

Ticket prices range from $39 to $47 for Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday evening performances; $47 to $60 for Friday evening and Saturday and Sunday afternoon performances; and $47 to $65 for Saturday evening performances. There is a $10 discount for those 65 and older.

Tickets may be purchased at the Folger box office, by calling (202) 544-7077, or by visiting www.folger.edu/theatre.