Shakespeare’s “Othello,” now playing in a well nuanced production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, is always painful to watch. The Moor is a brilliant admiral who succeeds in protecting Venice from the Ottomans. But, like the hero of a Greek tragedy, his fatal flaw, being born black, guarantees his downfall.
As a black foreigner in Venice, he can never be accepted by society. He makes the grave mistake of marrying Desdemona, a senator’s daughter, which most Venetians deem an unforgivable sin.
As directed by Bill Rauch, the action is set in modern time, and Venice represents the U.S., embroiled in wars in the Middle East.
When Othello is deployed to Cyprus his new bride accompanies him. Othello has recently named Cassio as his lieutenant, passing over his trusted ensign Iago. The jealous ensign vows to destroy both Cassio and Othello by skillfully insinuating that Desdemona is Cassio’s lover.
Iago also falsely believes Othello is having an affair with his wife Emilia. The jealousy that Iago feels is exactly what he schemes to plant in Othello, with tragic results.
Shakespeare plots Othello’s downfall step by careful step, and we want to shout out, “Don’t you see what’s happening? How can you believe ‘honest’ Iago?”
The acting of the leads is riveting. Chris Butler’s Othello is genteel and gracious, until his mind unravels. Danforth Comins plays Iago as an understated conniver, an average man who personifies the banality of evil. When he brags that his good name is his greatest treasure, he convinces Othello, and maybe even himself. And poor Desdemona, played by Alejandra Escalante as a loving, honest wife, has no tools for fighting evil. A painful play, indeed.
This is Dorothy Velasco with KLCC’s Ashland Theater Review.