JEALOUSY is perhaps a more universal emotion than love. With "Othello," his most contemporary (and least performed) tragedy, Shakespeare wrote the book on the "green-eyed monster," setting down all its poisonous varieties in black and white. The Folger opens its 16th season with an accessible and entertaining "Othello" -- the troupe's first ever -- directed by Folger actress Mikal Lambert.
Black Othello, a Moorish general, stuns white Venetian society by marrying Desdemona, daughter of a retired general. The two feel secure in their generous love, but a viper enters the nest in the form of the fatally contrary Iago, hungry for a promotion and full of hatred for Othello. Iago begins a whispering campaign and ruins Othello with consequences tragic even by Shakespeare's standards.
Folger artistic producer John Neville- Andrews is a masterfully malevolent Iago, and one wishes he were onstage more often. Simultaneously solicitous and duplicitous, hateful and hilarious, his Iago relies on lust, ambition and trust as he energetically forges his chain of fools, planting faint hints and cunningly withdrawing with feigned concern.
Iago has a noble opponent in Elmore James' imposing Othello. James' "sweet-natured Moor" is benevolently calm, anchored by his love for Desdemona. But as Iago cunningly poisons his mind with phantoms, his open delight in his wife becomes a grimacing, forced charade. And his grief is multiplied by his race, having isolated himself in his marriage to a white woman.
The Folger's "Othello" benefits further from two particularly strong "guest" actresses. Sherry Skinker is assured and attractive as the wronged Desdemona, and her bewilderment and anguish are heartbreaking. And Annette Helde brings subtlety and understanding to the small but key role of Iago's wife Emilia, who unwittingly aids her husband's villainy.
Good performances are also given by Folger regulars Richard Hart, who brings his unique comic style to the role of Roderigo; Edward Gero, as Cassio, the innocent linchpin of Iago's plot; and Floyd King, who shines in two brief, hilarious entractes as the Mess Captain.
Lambert's direction is brisk and fluid, drawing us into Iago's web with a sense for the humor in the tragedy. Nits: The incidental music is unfortunate, the jokey opening scene is distracting, and the young actors playing "non-commissioned officers" seem to have been left to their own devices.
Russell Metheny's stylish, efficient set unfolds three times, finally suggesting a palace in Cyprus (with Deco touches). The unusual costumes by Ann Hould-Ward are witty and fanciful, like East Village streetwear, with African and international prints in autumnal colors.
OTHELLO -- At the Folger Theater through November 24.