"The point of 'Othello,' among other points, is that it is impossible to know another human being," says actor Patrick Page.
That's part of the idea undergirding the Shakespeare Theatre Company's new production in which Page plays Iago to Avery Brooks's "Othello," directed by Michael Kahn. All three seem to come to the play with new understanding, acquired as much through living as through study. "Othello" opened last night and plays through Oct. 30.
Page, who played Macbeth at the Shakespeare last season, says he brings "more of what I know about me. I think you live more and become more familiar with the workings of your own mind -- the darkness in it, the narcissism -- and the desperate attempts the ego makes to cover that up."
After an "enormous amount of research on different pathologies," Page says he concluded that the villain has "no ability to feel for another human being."
Also, he notes, "Iago has virtually no imagination." Shakespeare made the character's language "as flat and common as anything in the canon," whereas Macbeth, more antihero than villain, speaks gorgeous poetry.
The most important thing for Brooks, who played Othello for the company in 1990 (and Oedipus in "The Oedipus Plays" recently), "is to approach it as if I've never heard it, I've never seen it. So I try to clear my mind of any preconception about it."
The play "is never for me about jealousy. As a matter of fact, I don't know how one could play that," Brooks says. Instead, it is about "love and vulnerability, trust and betrayal, as I always thought. But certainly it is a deeper level of understanding, now that I am this age."
Kahn directed a 1980 production in Stratford, Conn., that went to Broadway, but "I thought I hadn't got it right at all," he says. ". . . I really never thought I would do the play again because I thought it was too difficult for me to do."
But when Page played Macbeth, Kahn invited him to do Iago and decided to direct it after all.
"I wanted this to be about the people and the psychology of the people," Kahn says. He is interested in "what people say about each other" in the play and how it shows how little they truly know one another; for example, Othello repeatedly refers to "honest Iago."
"I want to focus on the vulnerability of relationships," Kahn says, and "how no one knows what is going to happen" as the tragedy unfolds. Not even Iago.
Caught in a web of scarlet rope, actor Greg Marzullo writhes as Catherine Gasta mimes slashing his torso erotically with her nails. They are rehearsing a scene from Synetic Theater's new take on "Dracula," directed by Paata Tsikurishvili, who will play the title role, and choreographed by Irina Tsikurishvili. It will run Thursday through Sunday in the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater as part of the Prelude Festival, then move to the Rosslyn Spectrum, Sept. 16-Oct. 29.
Marzullo plays the innocent Jonathan Harker and Gasta is Dracula's number one wife, Marya. Both young actors have found artistic homes with the small troupe, reveling in the non-naturalistic brand of movement-inspired theater that has become the Synetic trademark.
Gasta, who grew up near Philadelphia and studied theater and dance in college, says it took a few years of waiting tables and searching before she found her niche here. "I'm not a regular kind of actress that likes straight theater. I like movement, I like character work, something surreal," she explains.
Then, seven years ago she met Stanislavky Theater Studio's Andrei Malaev-Babel, was introduced to his then-partners, the Tsikurishvilis, and worked with them in "Little Tragedies." "I loved the movement. . . . I'd never seen people do a silent scene," she remembers. "I was amazed there was so much clarity."
She learned their theatrical "vocabulary" and became a key company member in such shows as "Host and Guest," "The Master and Margarita" and "Hamlet . . . the Rest Is Silence," in which she played Gertrude.
"I come to rehearsal and it's like playing," says Gasta. "Several moments in a play go by where you're a piece of scenery, then you transform into your character, then you're in an ensemble scene." Such transitions "demand something of an actor to make the work look good."
Marzullo, too, says he has no affinity for "realistic" theater. "I don't need to see someone really eat a sandwich onstage. I can do that at home," says the Baltimore native. He performed small roles in "Dead Souls" and in "Faust" as, in his words, the "fourth slithering demon on the left" or "stage parsley."
"I would stand in the wings and watch Irina's mad scene at the end of Act 1," he recalls. "Her ability to express so many emotions with her body and her face in about 30 seconds was amazing."
In "Salome," he graduated to King Herod. "I think that's the one where I was able to assimilate the physical training and the vocal ability that I had, to show people what I was capable of," says Marzullo, who recently played Jason in "Jason and the Argonauts."
He suggested that Synetic do "Dracula" after Paata had asked the actor, who handles some of the company's publicity, for ideas on how to broaden its audience. It is, Tsikurishvili says, "great material for us, as a non-realistic theater company. At the same time, for me, it has a timeless link. It's a war-related issue." He notes that novelist Bram Stoker's character was inspired by the 15th-century Romanian warrior Vlad the Impaler. In a kind of prologue, Tsikurishvili says he will show how Dracula caught his blood lust. "War makes you crazy and you lose yourself because you're dealing with blood," he explains.
And surely Tsikurishvili, who comes from the Republic of Georgia, knows his accent lends itself to such lines as, "Take care how you cut yourself. It's much more dangerous than you think."
* Actors in "Passion Play, a Cycle" at Arena Stage have been raising money for hurricane disaster relief from theatergoers after all shows during the new work's preview week, which continues through tomorrow. Call 202-488-3300.
* At Olney Theatre Center, all money from pay-what-you-can performances by the National Players will go to the Red Cross. Olney's young professional touring troupe performs "The Taming of the Shrew" Sept. 14-15 and "Dracula" (not related to Synetic's production) Sept. 21-22. Call 301-924-3400.