Saturday, October 29, 2011

Othello at the Folger Theatre

He hates the Moor.

He really hates the Moor.

The character of Iago in William Shakespeare's Othello is one of the most captivating villains ever put on the stage.  He is very clear about his seething rage, angry that he has been overlooked for a military promotion and suspicious that his general has committed adultery with his wife, Emilia.   Washington, DC audiences have the opportunity to view a consummate Iago, in the expert performance by Ian Merill Peakes now on the stage at the Folger Theatre.

Director Robert Richmond has reordered Iago's admission of hatred from Act I, scene 3 to the very beginning of the play.  Therefore the revenge plot is in the forefront from the very beginning.  Yet, the play is titled Othello, not Iago, and Mr. Richmond has found in Owiso Odera an equally forceful performance as the charismatic general, whose jealousy is stoked by his loving not too wisely, but too well.

Mr. Odera is a commanding presence, handsome, strength personified when breaking apart a drunken brawl, yet deeply romantic with his beloved wife, Desdemona.  Mr. Odera navigates with a clarity sometimes lacking in other performances of this character the sometimes baffling transition from trusting husband to that of an anguished man, broken in spirit by the belief that his young wife is unfaithful.  This Othello is heartbreaking, and while he maintains sympathy he is also horrifying in his insistence that his innocent wife must die.

Janie Brookshire is a beautiful and sensual Desdemona.   Her bafflement at her husband's change in affections is poignant.  Her delivery of the famous Willow Song is more wistful than melancholic, a tinge of hope colors her  performance even in the face of impending doom.  Ms. Brookshire's death throes are also terrifying and brutal.

As the manipulated wife of Iago, Karen Peakes compels the audience to fully believe that Emilia loves Iago.  This is crucial for the audience to understand how Emilia can steal Desdemona's handkerchief and in subsequent scenes with her frantic mistress not reveal that she is responsible for its disappearance. Ms. Peake's slow burning revelation that her husband is responsible for the death of her young mistress is that of any woman who discovers the man she loves is not who she believes him to be.  Ms. Peakes gives a masterful portrayal of this complicated woman.

As the valiant Cassio, the gallant young man who supplants Iago in the military hierarchy, Thomas Keegan is much more than just the pretty face that sometimes happens with the character of Cassio.   He is charismatic and sexy, yet embodies well Cassio's weaknesses in wine and women that gives Iago the crack he needs to plot his destruction.  As the comic toady, Roderigo, Louis Butelli provides a welcome amount of comic ineptitude.   He lightens the mood at some of the darkest moments of Iago's plotting.

Iago.   Ian Merrill Peakes embodies with a passionate commitment the full range of Iago's bitter emotions as broadly  as possible without descending into a mustache-twirling cartoon.   We, the audience, no matter how seasoned with this play, delight in wondering just what Iago is going to do next.  His mania grows until it reaches the breaking point when with wild eyes and the barest crack of a smile Mr. Merrill Peakes sends shivers down your spine.

Director Richmond has decided to set his production at the time of the crusades, emphasizes the religious aspect of the characters, which is very much supported by the text.  Mr. Richmond has reassembled the design team that brought his acclaimed production of Henry VIII to this same stage last year.   The score by composer Andrew Cochrane compliments the moods of the play as they change with the winds of the storm that tosses our characters on the shore of Cyprus.  The costumes by William Ivey Long and the lush Arabian setting of billowing fabrics and lush carpeting and pillows designed by Tony Cisek evoke this era without overwhelming the tiny space of the Elizabethan Theater.  It is a beautiful and thoughtful time period for this classic tale.

William Shakespeare's Othello will be performed at the Folger Theatre through December 4, 2011.   Please arrive one hour early and take advantage of viewing the Folger Shakespeare Library's exhibition, Manifold Greatness celebrating the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible.   For tickets and other performance information please visit

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