Greg Coughlin, Marianna Bassham, Seth Gilliam,
and Brandon Drea in Othello
(© Andrew Brilliant/Brilliantpictures Inc)
Greg Coughlin, Marianna Bassham, Seth Gilliam,
and Brandon Drea in Othello
(© Andrew Brilliant/Brilliantpictures Inc)
Any production of Othello that brings out hitherto hidden nuances is a rarity to be treasured, and Commonwealth Shakespeare Company's rendition, now being performed for free amid Patrick Lynch's stark Italo-fascist slab of a set on Boston Common, achieves that remarkable feat.

For example, we know going in that Iago (here played with startlingly youthful vigor by James Waterston) will be speaking out of both sides of his mouth. What's interesting about this highly intelligent, lively production directed by CSC founder Steven Maler, is the revelation that basically everyone is lying, to some degree or another. Othello himself prevaricates when he protests, ever so eloquently and at some length, that he is "little bless'd with the soft phrase."

As portrayed by Seth Gilliam, Othello is not the stunned dupe we're accustomed to seeing, but a clever, cagey man whose advantage on the field was no doubt more tactical that brutish. He's a smooth operator, in a good way: observe how masterfully he placates the Duke and senators, if not Desdemona's outraged father (Fred Sullivan, Jr., who appears more injured in pride than affection over the usurpation).

Moreover, once the jealousy trap is set, Gilliam lets us in on every twist and turn of Othello's plan -- and in Waterston's hands, Iago's plotting is equally crystalline. Ultimately, however, Othello's elaborate reasoning is no match for gut instinct.

The only flaw in this production is the casting of the often fine Marianna Bassham as Desdemona. With her deep, lubricious voice and sexy stride (enhanced by costume designer David Israel Reynosos' sleek 1940s outfits), she's a far cry from the young virginal bride described by the Bard. The disparity becomes increasingly problematic as Desdemona escalates her petitions that Othello reinstate Cassio (a serviceable Dan Roach), and Bassham adopts a foot-tapping Alice Kramden stance when what we need to see is a kitten toying with a hand grenade.

Conversely, Adrianne Krstansky makes an exemplary Emilia. Her soft, unschooled tones suggest underclass origins, and the cowed quality of her posture acknowledges Emilia's servile stature -- while hinting, perhaps, at a history of having been beaten. When Emilia rises, albeit too late, to Desdemona's defense, it's like watching all the misused women throughout history finally speaking out.