“Men should be what they seem,” Iago says in Shakespeare’s “Othello,” and in the audience we feel we could prematurely strangle him for saying so. He is, after all, one of the great deceivers of dramatic literature — a man nothing like what he seems. With little more than the precision of his irony, he engenders lust, wrath and murder. And that’s before he even picks up a dagger himself.
As this speedy “Othello,” directed by Allison Collins ’11, begins, we learn that the Moor and regal Venetian general Othello (Rhys Bufford ’10, with fury to match his eloquence) has eloped with Desdemona (Erin Capistrano ’10), the beautiful daughter of a rich man who is infuriated by her secret marriage, especially because it is to someone less white than Elizabethan lace. Meanwhile, Othello’s sociopathic third-in-command, Iago (Eric Simpson ’11), has developed a legendary jealousy after recently losing a promotion at the hands of the inexperienced Michael Cassio (Gabriel Bloomfield ’11, who fluidly navigates surreal alternations between salaciousness and honor-obsession). In case things weren’t getting awkward enough, Turks are about to attack the Venetian-held Cyprus and the newly nuptialed general is missing.
Operatic drama aside, these early scenes pass slowly. Iago speaks of his hatred for Othello and Cassio in a tone more fit for a foot-dragging waiter, and the invading Turks might only be moving Ottoman chairs for all the messengers’ excitement. But then, in a beautifully staged scene in the Senate chamber, Othello and Desdemona defend their love for each other before Othello sails for Cyprus, with a pledge that his new wife will follow. The play seems to start moving.
It takes another short break for introductions on Cyprus, where a storm has destroyed the Turks before one can even set so much as an iambic foot on stage. Finally, the elegantly abridged script (cut by Collins herself) and its unbroken scenes allow the action to progress quickly. With the enemy fleet destroyed, the real danger can begin.
Here, Iago more than makes up for his start, effecting servility and cluelessness to manipulate Othello (and everybody else) into carrying out revenge. The act is so convincing that every hint he drops maddeningly red flags his true intentions, and his easy asides to the audience are disturbing in their hateful nonchalance. Capistrano’s Desdemona — whose red shawl is a bobbing indulgence in the production’s austere aesthetic – blooms with an infectious tenderness every time her husband is near, but also guards the famous strength that allows her to argue for her life in measured rhetoric.
Of course, it’s Shakespeare, so these words matter … a lot. You shouldn’t worry, though: Owing most likely to both the editing and the talent, it is an astoundingly lucid production. And the words are worth hearing. Especially when coming from Bufford’s mouth, seemingly laughable words like “strumpet” take on the troubling power of stronger, modern epithets.
The verse loses little beauty in the pruning, and the production moderates that beauty smartly. At certain points, which Collins deploys with perfect scarcity, the poetry arrests, and the resulting silent moments are sublime.
The style of the production, however, is much more uneven. Bradley Milam ’10 plays Roderigo (an unrequited suitor for Desdemona, who is perfectly suited to Iago’s plans) with a foppishness that is delightful largely because it is unexpected, but a few other choices feel too much as if they were for a different staging, or even a different play.
Some choices seem both problematic and intelligent. This version downplays the story’s racial component, and much of the racially charged language and imagery has been removed. The absence feels at once like an eschewing of the play’s most contemporary relevance and the eschewing of a conceit that is overdone because of its relevance. By the end, though, race does feel like an unexplored plot point.
So instead, the play only takes on love, betrayal, jealousy, honor, deception, gender relations and the power of words in order to build up to a very tragic climax. No one ever said Shakespeare was simple, but, by stripping his play down, this production manages to focus on the elaborate incantations of deception — lies whispered at the ear until they sound like truths. As Desdemona’s father notes: “Trust not your daughters’ minds / By what you see them act.” Too bad he didn’t warn about the sons.