“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.’ ”
Tuesday–Nov. 27. 201 East Capitol St. SE. 202-544-7077. www.folger.edu. $30-$65.
Wednesday-Nov. 6. 1800 S. Bell St., Arlington. 800-494-8497.
or www.synetictheater.org. $45-$55.