TRUE LOVE Pitts-Wiley and Crugnola.
A steaming undercurrent of racism, a paragon of betrayal with a phalanx of betrayed characters, plus love not just lost but hurled away in raging jealousy. Shakespeare suppliedOthello with enough drama to power several plays — and for a bonus introduced the term “green-eyed monster” to our idioms.
Mixed Magic Theatre is staging a dynamic take on the tragedy (through December 15), directed by the theater’s co-founder, Ricardo Pitts-Wiley; he also has the title role. But this is by no means a vanity production — performing with nuance and restraint, the veteran actor has never been better.
The set design by Melanie Stone has the action take place on a map, with “Italia” across the Mediterranean from “Afrika.” If you went to high school in an English-speaking country, you know the plot. Returned to Venice elated after military victory and newly married to his devoted Desdemona (Stephanie Crugnola),the Moorish general appears to have it all. Unfortunately, he also has a treacherous ensign, Iago (Alex Duckworth), who is resentful that the less experienced Cassio (Jordan Greeley) has been given a promotion instead of him. For good measure, Shakespeare tosses in Iago’s vague suspicion that Othello has cuckolded him.
Iago enlists the gullible Roderigo (Christopher Ferriera), who had yearned for an uninterested Desdemona for his wife. Roderigo, who refers to Othello as “thicklips,” tells Desdemona’s father, Brabantio (Bob Colonna), of the secret elopement in even more graphic racist terms: “an old black ram is topping your white ewe.” Before the Duke of Venice (Tom Oakes), Brabantio accuses Othello of having seduced his daughter through witchcraft, amazed “that she should wed what she fears to look upon.” But Desdemona, who fell in love listening to Othello’s tales of martial adventure, convincingly declares her devotion to the Moor. In a parting shot at his new son-in-law, Brabantio presciently suggests to him: “She has deceived her father, and may thee.”
Iago’s deceptions abound. Early on he proudly declares to Roderigo, “I am not what I am,” even as he proceeds to trick the fool. He gets him to push a drunken Cassio into a brawl that leaves Roderigo battered and Cassio relieved of his rank by an infuriated Othello. This sets up Cassio to be the fall guy when Iago obtains a distinctively embroidered handkerchief of Desdemona’s that Cassio finds and gives away, leading Othello to assume a double betrayal.
Iago is a fascinating villain, who dismisses love as “merely a lust of the blood and a permission of the will.” Duckworth plays him with matter-of-fact arrogance, staying far from anything approaching a sneer, making his villainy a sort of twisted intellectual amusement more than impassioned. Iago’s wife Emilia, who is as honest as he is corrupt, is given a breadth of fascinating personality by Hannah Lum, a performance highlight. Crugnola is convincing as the demure Desdemona, but we would be far more interested in herand her fate if her personality were made more charming, as the character has come across in other productions. Cassio has plenty of Emilia’s kind of charisma, in a masculine dimension, as presented by Greeley. He evokes empathy for his contrived downfall, even through the character’s braggadocio.