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Othello

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Editorial Review

Two ‘Othellos’ built around their Iagos

By Peter Marks
Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2011

What makes Iago seethe? The eternal mystery of his mortal loathing of Othello isn't totally cracked in Folger Theatre's impressive, compulsively watchable staging of the tragedy. But in Ian Merrill Peakes's portrayal of Shakespeare's most captivating villain, one comes tantalizingly close to grasping his rancid perspective.

That's partly because the highly accomplished Peakes - one of the finest Shakespearean actors regularly appearing in Washington - is so darn charming. More important, though, it is Peakes's acumen for seeming to live moment to moment on a stage, his gift for revealing a character who can think on his feet as fleetly as he stays three steps ahead of everyone else, that allows him to excel whenever he portrays a complex classical personage, whether it's Macbeth or Henry VIII or Angelo of "Measure for Measure."

The best Iagos do this and, as in all such cases, the completeness of the performance helps to minimize some of the vexing narrative issues that "Othello" presents for contemporary audiences, even in a production as sturdy as the one director Robert Richmond constructs at Folger. Although Owiso Odera does nicely by Othello, conveying the imperiousness, swagger and insecurity of the warrior who beds chaste Desdemona (a fetching Janie Brookshire), neither he nor Richmond is able to make convincing that peculiar moment when Othello must turn on a dime from devoted husband to paranoid vengeance-seeker.

The extreme difficulty of making this plot twist work reveals why "Othello" is built most successfully around its Iago, not Othello. Richmond underlines the centrality of Iago's cause here by transposing a line from Scene 3 - his blanket declaration "I hate the Moor" - and making it the evening's first utterance.

The various possible rationales for Iago's wrath are well articulated here: jealousy over Desdemona; outrage at being passed over in rank; suspicion that Othello covets Iago's wife, Emilia (Karen Peakes). And to Ian Peakes's credit, the vendetta comes to seem as much a game as an obsession, especially as this Iago so fully stokes the gullibility of his risible confederate Roderigo, played by that engaging clown Louis Butelli.

Shakespeare clearly viewed Iago's diabolical genius for manipulation as a singular achievement: Of all the fatal mischief-makers in his great tragedies, from Goneril and Regan to Lady Macbeth to Claudius, Iago is only one still standing at the end of his play. Perhaps, in light of the elegance of Iago's malevolent craftsmanship, the playwright couldn't bring himself to add his vilest puppet master to the carnage. Or maybe the punishment he metes out to Iago is the harshest: "If there be any cunning cruelty that can torment him much and hold him long, it shall be his," a Venetian noble declares at the evening's end, consigning Iago to imprisonment and torture.

The inordinate degree to which we're transfixed by Iago is reinforced not only in Folger's production on Capitol Hill, but also in, coincidentally, a second, equally satisfying version of the play being mounted a few miles away in Crystal City. There, Synetic Theater's "Othello" - a remounting of the company's wordless, movement-based 2010 adaptation - takes Iago's multiplicity of motives for driving Othello to murder and makes them flesh by having three actors play him at once.

In this highly stylized incarnation, directed by Paata Tsikurishvili and choreographed by his wife, Irina Tsikurishvili, Iago's fragmented persona takes on a most entertaining physicality. Staring into a series of mirrors, Philip Fletcher's Iago watches as his reflections come to life, in the form of two of Synetic's other first-rank actor-dancers, Alex Mills and Irina Tsikurishvili. Giving Iago an omnipresent shape helps an audience imagine the breathtaking scope of his subterfuge as he creates the circumstances in which a man might be falsely convinced that a loyal wife is straying.

Roger Payano is a smoldering presence as Synetic's Othello, and his performance has grown in emotional texture since the production's initial run, from which all of the original actors have returned. Salma Shaw's Desdemona ably evokes the heroine's pure heart, and, as they dance to Konstantine Lortkipanidze's wrenchingly discordant score, the couple give off the sense of both heat and doom.

The two productions are visually adept; At the Folger, designer Tony Cisek conjures an "Othello" set in a Levantine Cyprus in the time of the Crusades, which gives him the chance to drape the stage in eye-catching Persian carpets and billowing clouds of colorful fabric; Broadway costume designer William Ivey Long has been enlisted to dress Bianca (Zehra Fazal), the consort of Othello's lieutenant, Cassio (the towering and forceful Thomas Keegan), as a jingling, jangling belly dancer.

Synetic takes a more abstract route, as set and costume designer Anastasia R. Simes bedecks her Crystal City stage with scenic pieces shaped like wedges - references to the triangles of the play: paranoid Othello's imagined menage, the idea of Iago as three personalities in one.

The most memorable image in either production, however, is a single moment of illumination: the face of Folger's Peakes, outlined in a beam of light, the features fixed in a sick smile. It's the look of depraved triumph, mirrored in the eyes of a detestable character and a smashing actor.

'Othello's' split personality

By Lavanya Ramanathan
Friday, Oct. 14, 2011

"Othello" is inarguably one of Shakespeare's most compelling tales, what with its ambitious outsider Othello, his bewitching-but-innocent wife, Desdemona, and duplicitous ally Iago, all simmering in a toxic stew of jealousy and mistrust.

Washington audiences are about to get an extra helping: Next week, two theaters open their own productions of "Othello" just a day apart: Folger Theatre will plant the Moor of Venice in the turmoil of the Crusades, thereby shifting one of the central themes of the story from race to religion. And Synetic Theater will strip down its "Othello," remounting a 2010 production that is not only sexed-up but also performed without a single word. We look at how the two stack up.

The approach:
Folger Theatre: How do you view "Othello" with a fresh perspective? Folger's director, Robert Richmond, sets the show during the Crusades, emphasizing Othello's background not just as a Moor, but as a Muslim. "He's a Moor who's found redemption through Christianity ... he's the best, most devout, most stoic of all the knights," says Richmond. All of which, the director explains, offers Iago a new motive to carry out his devastating plot to divide Othello and his wife. "Placing the play in this particular world, in this particular century," Richmond says, "there is a fear and mistrust of the 'other.' [Iago] is actually against the Moor for reasons that are much bigger than his personal reasons."

Synetic Theater: It's true that this "Othello" is performed without a word, but it also renders the singularly wicked character of Iago as one seriously diabolical trio. With three Iagos - one of them feminine - Synetic, like Folger, also suggests that the ensign might have motives beyond mere revenge, albeit sexier: These Iagos harbor unrequited lust, perhaps for Desdemona and also quite possibly for Othello.

Irina Tsikurishvili, who plays one-third of the villainous trio, explains: One Iago loves Othello and hates Desdemona, another may love Desdemona and another is obsessed with power. "He's charming, he's smart, he's jealous, he's dangerous as hell - Iago, he represents everything. Having three Iagos, we represent everything," Tsikurishvili says.

The (anti?) hero?
Folger Theatre: In one corner: Owiso Odera, a Kenyan-raised, Los Angeles-based actor who's stepping into the role of Shakespeare's tragic Moor for the first time. Ian Merrill Peakes, who plays Iago, helped point Folger and Richmond to Odera, whom he had worked with. Now the real-life friends will play the onstage confidantes. "You don't really see Iago and Othello develop a friendship," says Odera. "You assume there's some kind of trust there. With Ian and I, because we've worked together before, it feels natural and it feels easy."

Synetic Theater: In the other corner: Roger Payano, 6 feet 2 inches of sinewy, scantily dressed Othello. Extreme physicality is one of the hallmarks of Synetic's nearly balletic work, and "Othello" is no different. Philip Fletcher, who stars as one of the Iagos, says of Payano, "You see him, and it's like, 'Look at his arms!' " In fact, Payano is the reason, says director Paata Tsikurishvili, that Synetic decided to stage "Othello" in the first place.

Setting the scene
Folger Theatre: As the story moves from Venice to the more sensuous Mediterranean nation of Cyprus, expect Othello and the other fighters to begin abandoning their formal military garb for lighter - and occasionally more revealing - attire. "Cyprus," says Odera, "I compare it to Vegas, but not just Vegas: Think Vegas meets Baghdad. There's a war going on . . . so people's tempers rise easily, people are more suspicious of each other. What happens with [Othello and Desdemona] is that we start to become suspicious of each other as a couple."

Synetic Theater: To capture, without any dialogue, how Iago corrupts Othello's mind with the idea that his wife is unfaithful, Synetic employs a nifty trick: hand-held digital projectors, which allow the actors to splash images of the supposed tryst across the set. It's a nod to how modern-day technology can be used to incriminate, as with sex tapes and text messages. "The Iagos, they're filming [Desdemona] and then editing, and that's what they show to Othello," says Paata Tsikurishvili.

Weird! Sisters!
Folger Theatre: "Macbeth" is the Shakespeare play famous for its "weird sisters," but these two productions of "Othello" boast a real sister act: Zehra Fazal, a local actress known for her popular Capital Fringe show "Headscarf and the Angry Bitch," plays the small but crucial role of Bianca in Folger's production, while at Synetic, Fazal's sister, Salma Shaw, is playing the doomed heroine Desdemona.

Synetic Theater: Both sisters actually auditioned for the role of Bianca at Folger, says Shaw. "We don't have the same last name, so a lot of people don't put two and two together. . . . Even the director, when he saw us one after the other, didn't realize we're related." So is there any sibling rivalry? "It's a friendly rivalry if anything," says Shaw. "We want each other's shows to do really well. We're saying, 'Hey, see two types of "Othellos" - one that is very abstract and surreal, and the other one, which is more of the classical version.' "