OTHELLO The big gestures here are earned.
With John Douglas Thompson’s Moor, more is evidently more. The bristling African-American actor was a fiery Othello at Trinity Repertory Company in 1999 and a more varied if less volatile one at the American Repertory Theatre in 2001. Now he’s the breaking heart of an anxious, atmospheric staging of the tragedy — the first in its 30-year history — by Lenox-based Shakespeare & Company.
Inspired by the paintings of Goya and set in the 1820s, director Tony Simotes’s Othello (in repertory through August 31) is shadowy yet exuberant, stormily scored by composer Scott Killian and pushed along by Michael Hammond’s Iago, who is unusually hail-fellow and hearty, even in the soliloquies wherein he improvises his plan to deploy “the green-eyed monster” against the black general who has passed him over for promotion. Plotting to convince Othello of his new wife’s unfaithfulness, the ensign promises to turn Desdemona’s “virtue into pitch” — at which Hammond claps his hands with such flamboyance you think he might jig. Moreover, the scoundrel’s interactions with the other characters are marked by a forcible if friendly energy that might warn but rather charms them, perhaps seeming as “free and open” as the nature of the Moor.
With its blatant villain making up the plot as he goes along, Othello is one of the Bard’s most straightforward tragedies. Not to mention, with its bestial imagery, one of his most vividly written. And like all Shakespeare & Company productions, this one is very well spoken, especially by the chiseled Thompson, who ventures to give the Moor a light African accent (as well as an African off-duty wardrobe). Although the actors’ tongues race as swiftly as the production does, slowing down only to prolong the agony of Desdemona’s tender murder, you hear every word, and the imagery sticks deep.
Like many modern productions, this one tries to tie Othello more to the racism of our time than to that of Shakespeare’s. Not only is Venice’s hired general black, so is LeRoy McClain’s Cassio — which makes Iago less a creature of what Coleridge called “motiveless malignity” than a man chafed by affirmative action. And Hammond’s Iago exhibits more motive than most: he does seem to brood both on being passed over for the lieutenancy bestowed on Cassio and on the possibility that Othello or Cassio (or both) may have slipped between his sheets. Cuckoldry, real or imagined, is a potent thing in the very masculine world of this Othello, part of the tragedy of which is that men trained to violence, without any war to fight after the enemy’s convenient drowning, are shored up on Cyprus with nothing to do but play drinking games and brawl.
Amid all the maleness, American Repertory Theatre Institute for Advanced Theatre Training grad Merritt Janson’s Desdemona is an island herself: a diminutive, white-clad child woman whose very innocence operates against her. It’s no wonder that Iago hatches the notion of awaking Othello’s jealousy with intimations of hanky-panky between Desdemona and Cassio: the chaste bride and the chivalrous officer do seem to kiss and flirt. Neither does Desdemona, new to and delighted by her womanly powers of persuasion, back off her campaign to get the disgraced Cassio his job back when she perceives it’s not playing well to its one-man audience: her husband. Life with the first doting and then violent Othello is as much a brave new world to this Desdemona as male human company is to Miranda, and Janson’s character drinks it in with a wondrous openness.