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Actors' Shakespeare Project presents a visceral and violent production of Othello.

Josephine Elwood as Desdemona, John Kuntz as Iago, and Johnnie McQuarley in the title role of William Shakespeare's Othello, directed by Bridget Kathleen O'Leary, for Actors' Shakespeare Project.
(© Stratton McCrady)

Director Bridget Kathleen O'Leary's visceral and violent production of Shakespeare's Othello, which has opened Actors' Shakespeare Project's 12th season, is set in a world of shadows where the action unfolds at night. The principal players are motivated by a pursuit of rank, or the protection of the power they have achieved, driving them into conflict.

Othello, a Moorish soldier, has been appointed general of the Venetian army thanks to his prowess in battle. Unlike his fellow soldier Iago, who has been passed over for advancement on his staff, Othello has a guileless and transparent nature. He's a true hero who has never learned to conceal his intentions. At first, he's obviously in love with his bride, Desdemona. Later, after Iago has planted doubts in his mind about her virtue, he spurns her, leading to the climactic scene where his jealousy drives him to murder her.

O'Leary has chosen her three leading men to highlight the differences in their physical appearances and natural personalities. Johnnie McQuarley portrays a large, ebullient Othello who revels in his accomplishments and good fortune. John Kuntz is a sharp-edged Iago, who pretends to be a good, ol' buddy while planning his revenge. Ross McDonald makes Cassio into a cheery flirt, secure in his position as the Moor's lieutenant — at first. The three actors speak Shakespeare's poetry with clarity, endowing the macho camaraderie of military men with undertones of erotic ferocity.

Nor does O'Leary neglect the two major women in the story. Josephine Elwood's Desdemona appears as a sweet teenybopper enthralled by the powerful man she has married. Tiny in size compared with the bulky McQuarley, she uses almost Lolita-like gestures in commanding him. When Othello turns on her, she is confused, changing her manner to submission. However, when realizing that she is danger, she transforms back into a modern woman, one who is literally fighting for her life. Jennie Israel as a lusty Emilia, in love with her husband, Iago, seems ignorant of his plotting until the end of the play. Israel also appears as Brabantia, a female version of Desdemona's father, Senator Brabantio. Several actors in this cast of eight double in other roles.

Shakespeare makes sure that we understand Iago's true purpose, right from the beginning of the play. In his exchange with Roderigo, a dupe whom Iago uses to further his own ends, Iago declares, "I am not what I am," while professing his hatred for Othello before the first scene ends. Despite the discussion over the centuries about Iago as the consummate villain, the playwright lays out the character's motives right from the top. Iago is jealous of Cassio and angry at Othello and must have his revenge. The fact that Desdemona is the victim makes no difference. The irony lies in the constant references to "honest Iago" by the men against whom he is plotting.

O'Leary has updated the setting of the play to modern times, appropriately dressing the men in army fatigues (designed by Tyler Kinney). Eric Levenson's bleak setting of tall, stonelike, hulking pillars, combined with David Reiffel's tremulous music, further emphasizes the tragedy in store for the characters.

Despite the well-known outcome of Othello having "loved not wisely but too well," the viewer's heart aches with foreboding at his naive but trusting nature as Iago's plotting begins to take hold. Othello's ultimate difference from Desdemona and the officers on his staff is less an issue of race than one of class and culture. The strength of the performances by the leading actors, combined with O'Leary's careful mining of the intent of Shakespeare's words, make this production of Othello a cautionary tale, but one that remains timeless.