The high point of director Ron Daniels’s enrichingly nuanced “Othello” is one of the tragic hero’s lowest. Jonno Roberts’s coldly efficient Iago — a Shakespearean psychopath if there ever was one — stokes the doubts of Faran Tahir’s Othello in such an ingeniously insidious way that the embers of Othello’s paranoia about Desdemona’s fidelity suddenly erupt into an inferno.
On the steel floor of designer Riccardo Hernandez’s industrial, post-World War I set, Tahir performs an unsettlingly convincing rendition of Othello’s epileptic fit, shaking as if 10,000 volts are coursing through his body. It’s a wholesale collapse of Othello’s nervous system we are witnessing. The virile leader of armies, racked by suspicion, is made to feel powerfully the one sensation more devastating to him even than love: helplessness.
And so this Othello implodes, with an accessible completeness, in Shakespeare Theatre Company’s latest mounting of Shakespeare’s most breathtakingly well-plotted tragedy. The meticulously dramatized steps leading up to Othello’s vibrating in anguish speak to a director with a keen understanding of the sophisticatedly twisted game Iago plays; it’s the first time in many sittings that the breakdown has made total sense to me. The choice, too, of an actor of Pakistani descent as the proud, doomed Moor of Venice assists an audience in understanding the wild anxieties just below the surface of a successful man from a culture that is considered exotic and suspect.
The finely calibrated psychological development of Daniels’s “Othello” means you need a little extra patience with the domestic catastrophe unfolding in Sidney Harman Hall, where the production had its official opening Monday night. The intelligence displayed here is not accompanied at all times by high-impact emotionality, and so a spectator’s reaction to the performances is one of admiration rather than captivation. Roberts, for instance, plays Iago as such a cool customer that an audience only fleetingly gets to revel in his diabolical excesses. He’s a strapping, handsome Iago but not a magnetic one; this villain is more fixated on getting the job done than seducing us. The choice makes sense in the context of Daniels’s master plan, even if it’s not the most entertaining one.
“I hate the Moor,” Iago declares early in the play, and though he explains the rumors are that Othello “twixt my sheets h’as done my office,” the motive for Iago’s extremely cold-blooded treachery remains eternally a matter of conjecture. That enduring mystery reflects well on “Othello,” contributing mightily to why it’s far more than the best-written crime procedural of all time. An explanation for the hard feelings toward Othello, though, seems more concretely explored on this occasion, both in the preliminary scene in Venice, where the secret marriage of Othello to Desdemona (Ryman Sneed) is revealed to her apoplectic father, Brabantio (Rufus Collins), as well as in tasteful efforts to remind us of Othello’s religious roots. While Othello has converted to Christianity, a scene in Daniels’s production shows him performing the prayer rituals of his forebears; he’s a man who has not entirely reconciled his nature to his circumstances.
If the manipulation of Tahir’s Othello by Iago is highly persuasive, the romantic elements of “Othello” don’t always come across quite so successfully. There’s something less than fully activated about the passion between Othello and Sneed’s dewy Desdemona; similarly, the bond between Desdemona and Iago’s wife, Emilia (Merritt Janson), appears for too much of the play to be one remaining at arm’s length. These elements may well deepen over the course of the run. At the moment, however, the terrible revenge sparked by Othello’s misplaced fury doesn’t have quite the wrenching effect one waits for.
At play’s end, too, after Iago’s heinousness is exposed, Roberts’s blankness feels like a bit of a letdown. The intent may be to suggest that with Iago, there is no there there, that once his evil runs its course, no trace of a human being remains. And while an explosion of maniacal laughter would be silly, you’re still left craving some expression of some kind, of what Iago thinks of the horrors he’s perpetrated.
A few of the supporting performances round out the three-hour production in satisfying ways: Natascia Diaz brings zest to her portrayal of Bianca, the lady of the evening who plays a crucial, unwitting role in the tragedy, and Ben Diskant makes a first-rate fool of a Roderigo, the poor rich gentleman used and brutally dispatched by Iago.
Costume designer Emily Rebholz creates a handsome wardrobe of soldiers’ uniforms and billowy frocks, and Hernandez’s unfussy set smartly reduces the Venetian’s military presence on Cyprus to a single backdrop, depicting Venice’s symbol, the Lion of St. Mark. The designs, like the production, are full of good ideas.
Othello by William Shakespeare. Directed by Ron Daniels. Set, Riccardo Hernandez; costumes, Emily Rebholz; lighting, Christopher Akerlind; sound and music, Fitz Patton; fight direction, Robb Hunter. With Patrick Vaill, Ted van Griethuysen, Gregory Linington, Elan Zafir, Robbie Gay. About 3 hours. Tickets, $20-$108. Through March 27 at Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW. Visit shakespearetheatre.org or call 202-547-1122.