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Theater Review: Othello at the Folger Shakespeare Library

The stylized production treads a fine line between drama and melodrama.

Owiso Odera as Othello and Ian Merrill Peakes as Iago in Folger Theatre’s Othello. Photograph by Carol Pratt

☆☆☆ stars out of four

Othello is a notoriously tricky play to stage, obliging directors to tackle racism, sexism, a descent into madness that utterly defies logic, and some fabulously hammy lines (we can forever thank the Bard for coining the nastily descriptive phrase “the beast with two backs”). In Robert Richmond’s production, currently playing at the Folger Shakespeare Library, most attempts at subtlety are abandoned, resulting in a gripping show that occasionally veers toward melodrama and cliché. (For a completely different imagining of the play, check out our review of Synetic Theater’s wordless production here.) Consider two disparate characters: Desdemona (Janie Brookshire) is the archetype of virginal faithfulness, all blonde curls and sweet nature, while Iago (Ian Merrill Peakes) oozes so much evil that you’re tempted to cross yourself every time he appears.

And Othello himself? The success of any production of this play relies on an actor able to convincingly turn on a dime. As the Moor, Owiso Odera has outstanding physical presence but doesn’t quite portray the complexities of a man so tortured by his past that he’ll sacrifice his future out of sheer pride. Richmond’s decision to open with a scene of Othello and Desdemona in bed certainly drives home the chemistry between the couple, but it also sets the tone for some soap-opera-esque antics later in the show. A rattlesnake sound effect that plays every time Iago considers some new dastardly deed is awkward and jarring, and as the woefully hapless Roderigo, Louis Butelli is only a wig and a bustle away from a pantomime dame.

All the added passion, voyeurism, and dramatic music does make for great entertainment, but it also tends to detract from the emotional power of the story. Luckily, the second act is riveting, with exceptional performances from Karen Peakes as Emilia and her real-life husband as Iago. As Othello becomes consumed with jealousy, he’s a world away from Odera’s earlier performance as the smug, fearless army captain, which is possibly why his tortured angst and vicious cruelty towards his wife are harder to buy. This production almost seems post-racial: Despite lines such as “An old black ram is tupping your white ewe,” there’s little sense that Othello’s race is even obvious; Richmond seems to focus on other aspects of the play, particularly Christianity. Emilia’s impassioned speech in the final act drives home all the terrible injustices aimed at women, but race is practically an afterthought.

Tony Cisek’s set is deceptively simple at first—a gauzy four-poster bed seems pretty low-key for the Folger, but it quickly transforms into the sails on a ship, and then an Arabian souk, complete with Oriental rugs, ornate pillows, and even a belly dancer (Zehra Fazal). As always, the ensemble cast does an outstanding job utilizing aisle and balcony space, and fight scenes are well choreographed—with the exception of one fight involving Cassio (Thomas Keegan), in which the actors inexplicably go into slo-mo mode, Matrix-style. While there are some strong features here—Merrill Peakes is particularly effective and almost psychopathically horrible as Iago—a little hamminess goes a long way in a tragedy. This is an entertaining Othello, but it could still use a touch more thought and a touch less drama.

Othello is at the Folger Shakespeare Library through December 4. Tickets ($39 to $65) are available at the Folger’s Web site.