With one stroke of nontraditional casting, the director Hal Scott cuts "Othello" loose from racial melodrama and reestablishes it as pure tragedy.
In the production that opened Monday at the Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger, both Othello (the majestic Avery Brooks, best known for his title role in the television series "Hawk") and Iago (the supple, malevolent Andre Braugher) are played by black actors. Iago's racial hostility toward his general and victim, inevitable with a white actor in the role, is removed as a motive, and we get to see his villainy in its sheer malignant egotism. Braugher's Iago is a genius of manipulation with his own tragic flaw: Passed over by Othello for promotion, he lets his wounded pride fester into madness. Irrationally convinced that his wife, Emilia, has betrayed him with Othello, Iago creates a perfect revenge: He convinces the Moor that his own wife, Desdemona, is unfaithful. Braugher's Iago and Brooks's Othello burn in the same hell.
There have been great Othellos and there have been great Iagos, but usually not in the same production. Christopher Plummer's restless Iago easily outmaneuvered James Earl Jones's heavy-spirited Moor. In Olivier's production, his Othello's richness overwhelmed the pinched, inhibited Iago of Frank Finley. But Brooks and Braugher are evenly matched, and their scenes together are the kind of theater you dream about without ever believing you'll see it.
Avery Brooks, regal in robes of African fabric, enters languidly sniffing a rose. This is a direct echo of Olivier's entrance in the part. For his death scene, Brooks will borrow Olivier's startling suicide weapon. If these choices are gestures of respect, they're also a challenge: Brooks is signaling us that he fears comparison with no one. It's an audacious statement of intent, and he audaciously fulfills it. His performance is full of too much light and heat to fall in anyone's shadow.
"Free and noble-natured." "Great-hearted." These are the phrases other characters use to describe Othello. They're often hard for an audience to swallow while they watch him hurtling toward jealous rage and homicide. But Brooks's Othello really is great-hearted. Passionate yet gentle-mannered, tolerant, good-humored, he shoulders command so naturally that he seems unaware of how masterful he is. Studying a map, he wears donnish pince-nez. Adjusting his robes, he's a little miffed by his girth and what it says about encroaching middle age. Brooks has a deep, warm laugh, and he often turns it on himself. There's an innocence to his Othello. He's not a fool; it's not beyond him to imagine evil. It's just beneath him, down in the dark places where the mean and envious crawl, hating him simply because he is too noble to imagine them.
Braugher's Iago often literally stands in the dark -- down in the shadows of the aisle, or against a pillar, shrinking away from the golden Venetian light spilling across the stage. Watching from the sidelines, even when he doesn't speak for long minutes, he's in the scene. "Othello" can lack suspense when the audience gets ahead of Iago's plotting; Braugher keeps up the tension by discovering his malicious opportunities in the unfolding action. He's a born improviser, getting high on his own skill. Sometimes he even surprises himself: There's a kind of wonder on his face as he watches the forces he has unleashed, as if he had dynamited a dam and was now staring at the raging destructive waters. Though not upset by Desdemona's death, he seems a little surprised: This wasn't exactly what he'd planned. But it's bad enough. It'll do.
Othello and Iago's scenes are a terrible contest that has often been compared to a bullfight, and Brooks's essential innocence, his undeserved suffering, does suggest a wounded animal. When he moves his head in bewildered pain, you can almost see the picador's lances sticking from his back. As his tormentor, Braugher is almost giddy with the risk of what he's doing, and he's more than giddy -- he's wired -- at taking the risk. He taunts, lures, goads and soothes Othello into madness. He literally drives him crazy.
Brooks charges into his mad scenes as if unaware of their dangers, as if it were nothing to him to have to go crazy halfway through the evening and stay that way for the rest of the play. Without boring us. Without making us laugh. Moaning and reeling, battered by his rage and pain, Brooks is about as far from funny or dull as you can get. He's heart-breaking. And terrifying. There's some of the athlete's heroism in the way he plunges deeper and deeper into the character's agony. Just when you think he can't go on, he goes farther.
It's a long way down. Othello starts the play (in a daring, semi-nude bed scene) in Desdemona's arms. By intermission, he's lamenting in Iago's. At play's end, he again lies in his wife's embrace, but as a corpse, not a lover, and she too is dead. Brooks starts high enough -- so full-souled and fine that he demands our affections -- for this fall to be genuinely tragic.
The most simply plotted of Shakespeare's tragedies, "Othello" can easily just tumble downhill to its final disaster. But Scott paces the action, stoking our dread. In the "willow scene" just before her death, Desdemona talks with Emilia of love and men and sex; one minute the women are mournful, the next they're giggling bawdily. In less assured productions, this scene can stop the play dead. In Scott's hands, it's full of irony and approaching terror and, as it's meant to, makes the end hurt more.
As Desdemona, Jordan Baker is not only blond with a soft, sweet chin, she's tall, eye-level with her warrior husband. This is fortunate, as it makes his physical threat to her less brutal. Baker is a self-possessed, clear-eyed Desdemona, undone, like Othello, by her own decency. Franchelle Stewart Dorn turns in her usual strong work as Emilia. Floyd King, as Roderigo, Desdemona's foppish failed suitor, is a divine dope. He brings comedy into the play just when you need it. Graham Winton plays Cassio, whose innocent affection for Desdemona becomes Iago's major weapon, as sweet-natured and guileless; his maiming (by Iago) is one of the more terrible moments in the play.
John Ezell has given the production the set it deserves, a half-Byzantine, half-European city of high shuttered windows and rotting pillars, which Nancy Schertler evocatively lights. Daniel L. Lawson's African-inspired medieval robes and Lawrence Morris's score combining bassoon, French horn, African trumpet and African talking drum add to the production's cultural complexity. Scott goes beyond sociology, though. The characters in this "Othello" draw their destruction not from their society but from their selves.
Othello, by William Shakespeare. Directed by Harold Scott. Set, John Ezell; lighting, Nancy Schertler; costumes, Daniel L. Lawson; music, Lawrence Morris; fights, Nels Hennum. With Avery Brooks, Emery Battis, Graham Winton, Andre Braugher, Floyd King, Ted van Griethuysen, Sean Cullen, K. Lype O'Dell, Michael Gaston, Jordan Baker, Franchelle Stewart Dorn, Gayle Finer, George Altman, Stephen DeRosa, Robin Edwards, Heidi Guthrie, Troy Jemal, Ronnie Jenkins, Jose Luzarraga, Richard Pelzman, Kevin Roach, Erinn White, Gregory L. Williams. At the Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger through Jan. 27.