Shakespeare may have named "Othello" after the noble Moor, brought low by the green-eyed monster, jealousy. But the play has always belonged to Iago, the crafty ensign who single-handedly engineers that great warrior's downfall.
Is that because villainy is more stageworthy than forthrightness? Does the devious mind simply have more resources at its command -- resources with which to pique our curiosity and keep us on the hook? Is the manipulator intrinsically more intriguing as a species than those he is manipulating?
The questions certainly come to the fore at the Warner Theatre, where the American Shakespeare Theater's production of "Othello" opened a three-week run last night. And they come to the fore precisely because the two critical roles are in very sure hands. With James Earl Jones donning the flowing robes of the Moor, and Christopher Plummer in the tight doublet of Iago, the play is as balanced theatrically as it's ever going to be. One performer is not outacting the other, tipping the scales disproportionately this way or that. No, the two actors are matched in their stature, their command of a stage and their ability to breathe vigor and sweep into the Shakespearean line.
And it is Iago -- elusive, cunning, seductive in his evildoing -- who summons our deepest interest. Othello is a simple soul; he has but one face to offer us, although it becomes progressively distorted as Iago's poisonous insinuations do their work. Iago, however, is a man of many faces, a chameleon who adapts his coloration to fit the circumstances, an opportunist who seizes upon every changing moment. He is, in short, an actor. Even in this sound and often strapping production, which provides plenty of reasons to look elsewhere, it is hard to take your eyes from him.
This is not meant to belittle Jones' performance. Othello is one of the stickier acting parts in the Shakespearean canon. His childlike open-mindedness begs for our sympathy, and yet, at the same time, he seems almost unconscionably eager to swallow the bait that Iago extends to him and to brand the faithful Desdemona a strumpet. Othello must not appear a fool, but it's difficult getting around the fact that, once he's off the battlefield, he can be led by the nose.
Jones never lets us forget the man's great, brute strength. Thumping his barrel chest in rhythmic fury and vowing to take revenge on the wife he has come to distrust, he is an awesome creature indeed. In Jones' single most powerful moment, he bends over the sleeping Desdemona and compulsively, instinctively, kneads the coverlet on her bed, as if he were a savage beast exercising his claws for the kill. But there is also a great well of boyish innocence in this hulking man. His eyes can glisten with the wonderment of the newly born, and under his gathering rage, there is the puzzlement of one who never suspected the world could contain all the treacheries that Iago is reporting back to him.
Still, Othello is a pawn. Iago is the master of this chess board and he is plotting all the moves. Sometimes with a pained sense of duty. Sometimes with a cock-a-doodle bravura that revels in the very outrageousness of his exploits. Plummer not only plays the role with the sharpness of a carving knife, he instills it with lacerating humor -- humor that usually leaves someone's reputation in tatters. Diction is even one of Plummer's weapons. Hissing the initial "s" of "senators," he makes that calling sound like a cuss word. When he talks of the net he will devise to "enmesh them all," the actor extends the "sh" into the brooding air, so that you can actually hear the cords tightening.
It is, of course, easy to make Iago vile. Plummer does more. He makes him a dandy, as well -- an ambiguous courtier who kisses both men and women resoundingly upon the lips, and slaps their cheeks heartily, gestures that could be taken for camaraderie, if they didn't also carry a strong sadistic charge. Even when Iago owns up to his villainy -- admitting that he seeks and finds the worst in people -- Plummer handles the confession with such a persuasive semblance of self-loathing that he gets off scot-free. The actor's intelligence is lethal and lightning-fast, and it galvanizes every scene he's in.
For the most part, he trails a sturdy supporting cast in his phosphorescent wake. David Sabin wisely makes Desdemona's father less of an outraged tyrant than a deeply grieved parent. Aideen O'Kelly has the homely good sense of Emilia and she rises majestically to her death in the last act. Graeme Campbell, flush of face and dull of wit, is a convincing Roderigo. In fact, the only serious let-down in this well-spoken cast (a cast that dispenses with the Warner's usual microphones, incidentally) is Karen Dotrice. Dotrice is not Desdemona. She is a Desdemona doll, reciting her lines in a thin, reedy voice and moving through the tragedy with a rare somnolence.
Director Peter Coe has orchestrated much of the action with a panache that is only accentuated by the swirl of Robert Fletcher's sumptuous costumes. And the fight scenes are corkers. Why, then, one wonders, does Coe allow himself to break the headlong thrust of events with periodic freezes, when all the characters but Iago are locked into gratuitous tableaux?
If this is to permit Iago the chance to voice his innermost thoughts with impunity, the ploy is dramatically unnecessary. Iago is a being who can exercise his perfidy in a crowded room with perfect aplomb. People are his playthings, after all. He needs no special hiding place. Even when he's looking his victims squarely in the eye, he is hiding from them. What is truly frightening about Iago is not the cruel thoughts he nurtures in private, but the schemes he hatches boldly in society's bosom. Taking him out of the assembled company, even momentarily, is taking him out of his very element.
He's a slippery, sexy character, all right, and the dark glory of this production. But welcome as Plummer's performance is, its fascinations really shouldn't surprise us. Iago, I suspect, has always been the reason audiences have been drawn to the play over the centuries. Calling it "Othello" doesn't change matters. The deck is clearly stacked in favor of the double-dealer.
OTHELLO, by William Shakespeare; directed by Peter Coe; sets and costumes by Robert Fletcher; lighting by Marc B. Weiss; fights staged by B.H. Barry. With James Earl Jones, Christopher Plummer, Karen Dotrice, Aideen O'Kelly, Kelsey Grammer, Graeme Campbell, Robert Burr and David Sabin.
At the Warner Theatre through Sept. 27.