Othello, William Shakespeare’s quintessential tale of race-baiting political treachery, has more connections to contemporary society than one might care to admit (or write down). As observed in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s production, now in performance at the American Repertory Theater, the story of a virtuous black leader brought down by the vindictive white nationalists around him remains as fresh as society is rotten.
Transplanted from 16th-century Venice to a present-day US Army base, where televisions line the fitness center and push notifications alert the men of incoming attacks, the bard’s words and deeds remain the same. Passed over for a promotion by the Moorish admiral, Othello, a vengeful Iago creates a destructive whirlwind of xenophobia and mistrust to get himself the position of which he believes himself worthy.
Each Shakespeare interpretation has the chance to highlight a different aspect of the well-known works, and this one distinguishes itself by presenting Iago as a cuckolded MAGA bro. Indelibly played by Danforth Comins as a vindictive man-child obsessed with the physical details of Othello and Desdemona’s nuptials, this Iago never once considers the consequence of his actions. Accompanied by sly grins, his thoughts on racial impurity and “the fruits of whoring” echo the dog-whistle remarks we so often hear from powerful people who seek to profit from deplorable behavior without engaging it head-on. Comins brings this villain of villains down to human size without reaching for sympathy yet is still seductive in forcing those around him into quiet compliance.
The same dynamic cohesion is not found in Chris Butler’s Othello, who swings wildly from noble statesmanship to fits of jealous rage at the implication that his wife has been unfaithful. Despite these jarring shifts in tone, Butler still turns in a convincing, if stagnant, portrayal as the doomed leader.
The rest of the cast is mostly excellent, and three particular performers make the most of their roles, even as the second half of the production adopts a grim aura that might have benefited from treating itself as the soapy melodrama it truly presents. Rainbow Dickerson as Bianca, a scorned lover targeted by Iago’s misogyny; Stephen Michael Spencer as Roderigo, the bumbling fool who carries out Iago’s dirty work; and Amy Kim Waschke as Emilia, Iago’s put-upon wife, all take lush bites out of roles that might easily fall to the wayside.
Though Bill Rauch’s direction and Christopher Acebo’s scenic design set an excellent stage for three hours of treachery and backstabbing, the production starts to lag a bit as each piece of Iago’s diabolical puzzle starts to fall into place. Since his wicked machinations are laid bare from the start, indulging a bit in their nastiness might be the key to keep the play’s second half from feeling like a drawn-out funeral march. Then again, such an indulgence might just have been what Shakespeare was warning against. In that case, on we march…
OTHELLO. THROUGH 2.9 AT LOEB DRAMA CENTER. 64 BRATTLE ST., CAMBRIDGE. AMERICANREPERTORYTHEATER.ORG