When Venice was a great power, its most trusted military leader was Othello, a Moor. In secret, Othello wooed the daughter of a Venetian noble, Brabantio, and as the play opens their secret marriage is about to be revealed. I ago, a trusted officer who may or may not be seriously aggrieved at being passed over as Othello's second-in-command, and who may or may not really believe that Othello seduced his wife, is certainly out to get Othello from the play's first beat.
When I ago's first attempt — turning Brabantio against Othello — isn't enough, he devises a plan to convince Othello that his new wife, Desdemona, has been unfaithful with Michael Cassio, who conveniently is the officer who got the job as Othello's lieutenant that I ago covets. It works, all too well.
What is I ago's problem? Why is Othello so easily convinced and moved to violence? Some of the most famous productions in Shakespearian history have tried to address these and other vexing questions in a play that continues to fascinate audiences.
The production of Shakespeare's Othello, Moor of Venice by Shake the Bard Theatre Company currently at the Arcata Playhouse makes good use of this intimate space to focus on the dynamics of the play itself. A traditional but minimal set (conceived, designed and created by David Hamilton, Jack Freeman and Sam Neuwirth, respectively) is complemented by Pat Hamilton's handsome and evocative costumes and Gabe Groom's suggestive sound design. Director David Hamilton has employed some cunning stagecraft to keep the action on track and to focus particular moments. The result is a clear and creditable production, with solid performances, including a brilliant, thrilling one — and a virtual clinic on acting Shakespeare — by Jabari Morgan as Othello.
Morgan's interpretation is well-considered and creative, and its skillful expression rivets your attention. From his first entrance and his first calmly, warmly resonating words, his Othello is every inch a general, until this shock unhinges him, and he struggles against a kind of madness. Morgan's masterful physical (including vocal) effects in the second half of the play are dazzling, but I was just as impressed by his precision in the first half, when he is alive to every moment. Too many actors, especially in Shakespeare, feel the need to indicate with gestures the meaning of the words. Jabari Morgan acts the words, and every actor should watch his performance to see the difference.
I ago presents his "honest" face to others, but exposes his malevolent intentions to us in soliloquies that poet and critic W. H. Auden thought should be played "slightly mad and with terrific gaiety," which aptly describes how a cavorting A.J. Stewart performed them. He was most disconcerting and effective playing the calm and solicitous public I ago, and his creepy grin in the final scene chillingly illuminated both sides of the character. He also matched Morgan's power in some key scenes together.
Erik "Rez" Peterson is efficient in the mostly functional role of Cassio, a self-consciously upright aristocrat with a weakness for snobbery and wine. Rich Chase plays the pawn Roderigo with a trusting dimness that makes him I ago's effective tool, yet with the sense of wrong that leads to I ago's undoing. Abe Green has one of the better voices, and as a younger than usual Brabantio, he can stand toe to toe confronting Othello. Darcy Daughtry has a small but winning role as the reputed strumpet, Bianca.
Jennifer Trustem is a fiery Emilia, I ago's wife as well as Desdemona's lady-in-waiting and staunchest defender. As Desdemona, Jay Shepherd emphasizes her naivet?©, and together she and Trustem create a very effective (at least when audible) scene on what would soon be Desdemona's deathbed, employing dialog that has Shakespeare sounding like an Elizabethan feminist, with the gender equivalent of his more famous "has not a Jew eyes?" aria in The Merchant of Venice.
What past ages called passions, and attributed to temperament, culture, class and race, we may reflexively consider psychological or mental illnesses. In our culture I ago may remind us of psychopaths and sociopathic serial killers, Othello perhaps as psychotic or even schizophrenic; Desdemona as abuse victim. There is scholarly support for the idea that both Othello and I ago were victims of physical maladies known to have mental effects (Othello's epilepsy being long associated with satanic possession, demoted in Shakespeare's time to obsession).
But even so, as David Hamilton claims in his program note, these characters all represent aspects of ourselves. Many will recognize some misguided Othello in authority, or the I ago of the office, complete with cascades of malignant consequences. All of the main characters — including Desdemona, Emilia and Cassio — are flawed and make small mistakes that conspire to the tragic end. As Desdemona muses, "How foolish are our minds."
This show wasn't an unqualified triumph the night I saw it — there were some weak moments, diction problems and unhelpful lighting, especially in the final revelation scene. But it's well worth seeing, and Jabari Morgan's performance is not to be missed. Othello plays the next two weekends.
The first of two touring Broadway shows presented by CenterArts arrives at the Van Duzer Theatre this week. Evita, the musical biography of Eva Per??n by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, plays two nights, Wednesday and Thursday, Nov. 14 and 15, at 8 p.m. Then, later in the month The Producers by Mel Brooks has a three-night run, same time and place, Nov. 28-30.
Ferndale Rep begins the holiday season Thursday, Nov. 15, with its production of Charlotte's Web, the classic story by E. B. White (in paperback, it is the best-selling children's book of all time), written for the stage by the veteran children's story adapter and playwright, Joseph Robinette. The Rep has assembled a cast of 27, directed by Carol Martinez, with scenery and lights by Gary Franklin and costumes by Vikki Young. Though the play brings barnyard animals alive to the delight of children, its themes of friendship, active affiliation and courage in the face of the unchangeable cycles of life make this a story for families to share. The play runs through Dec. 16.
Also opening Thursday is the North Coast Rep production of the musical Fiddler on the Roof, which plays through Dec. 15. More on this show next week.