Two ‘Othellos’ built around their Iagos

October 25, 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 importantly, 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

by William Shakespeare, directed by Robert Richmond. Sets, Tony Cisek; costumes, William Ivey Long; original music, Anthony Cochrane; sound, Matthew M. Nielson; lighting, Andrew F. Griffin; fight choreography, Casey Dean Kaleba. With Todd Scofield, Chris Genebach, Jeff Allin. About 2 hours 40 minutes. Through Dec. 4 at Folger Theatre, 201 East Capitol St. SE. Visit www.folger.edu or call 202-544-7077.

Othello

by William Shakespeare, directed by Paata Tsikurishvili. Adapted by Paata Tsikurishvili and Nathan Weinberger. Choreography, Irina Tsikurishvili; sets and costumes, Anastasia R. Simes; lighting, Andrew F. Griffin; original music, Konstantine Lortkipanidze; sound, Irakli Kavsadze. With Scott Brown, Vato Tsikurishvili, Ira Koval, Sarah Taurchini, Peter Pereyra, Hector Reynoso. About 90 minutes. Through Nov. 6 at Synetic Theater at Crystal City, 1800 S. Bell St., Arlington. Visit www.synetictheater.org or call 800-494-8497.

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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