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British director Jonathan Munby brings Shakespeare's tale of monstrous jealousy to Navy Pier.

James Vincent Meredith (center) as the title character in Othello, directed by Jonathan Munby, at Chicago Shakespeare's Courtyard Theater.
(© Liz Lauren)

Director Jonathan Munby's production of Othello for Chicago Shakespeare Theater is visceral, horrifying, and white-knuckle-inducing from lights up to curtain call, hitting the audience with the impact of an invading army.

Othello's plot isn't complicated, but the emotions propelling that story depict humanity in all its infinite complexities. Othello (James Vincent Meredith) is a general of regal stature and radiant charisma. In the evocative prologue Munby inserts into the drama, we see Othello marrying his beloved Desdemona (Bethany Jillard) in a scene of delicate, candlelit beauty. Munby then hurls the audience headfirst into ugliness: We're in the company of Iago (Michael Milligan) and Roderigo (Fred Geyer), two men consumed with jealousy, Iago because Othello has passed him over for a promotion and Roderigo because he is in love with Desdemona. Where Roderigo is weak and almost comically dim-witted, Iago is monstrously cunning.

The narrative follows Iago as he poisons Othello's mind against Desdemona, inciting acts of violence and hatred that make you gasp at their cruelty. Iago's scorched-earth campaign is the work of a fiend, not a human: He's a puppet-master with no soul, a man who will manipulate his own wife in order to destroy Othello's world.

Munby's cast is uniformly excellent. As Othello, Meredith is every inch a hero and a scholar, a man with a kingly bearing and an aura of imposing authority, at least before Iago gets into his head. Meredith begins the production as a man who is a devoted lover at home and a fierce leader in battle. Watching Othello's transformation under the manipulations of Iago, you can all but see his heart corroding from within. In one remarkable scene, Munby has Othello collapse in an epileptic seizure, as if his physical body simply cannot withstand the emotional assault Iago is orchestrating. Othello's devolution from devout adoration to cold-blooded rage to howling, unspeakable grief feels both inevitable and shocking. It would take a superman or a saint to survive Iago's insidious corruption, and Othello is all too human.

As Iago, Milligan lets his sense of terror unfold slowly over the course of the show. Iago initially seems like a thousand other army buddy bros who fight hard and play harder. The serpent reveals itself gradually, and only in Iago's moments of solitude. In the light of day, his venom is invisible, even to his wife.

Othello is a testosterone-drenched story, but the women in Munby's cast are standouts. As Desdemona's friend Emilia, Jessie Fisher is an enlistee tough enough to navigate the ingrained misogyny of the armed forces and tender enough to long for her husband's approval. As Desdemona, Jillard delivers a deft mix of softness and steeliness. The sweetness and love Desdemona feels for her husband is all palpable, and her terrified confusion when he turns on her is heartbreaking.

Munby's decision to set Othello on an army base is inspired. There's no room for obvious beauty in a harsh, angular world that moves from cement-block apartment buildings reminiscent of Soviet Era housing, to a military base that's all concertina wire and towering chain-link, to the fluorescent-lit corridors of power where the Duke of Venice (Melissa Carlson, the very embodiment of political power) launches a war with the Turks.

Munby works numerous distinctive, ingenious touches into the production: At one point, a corps of drunken soldiers serenade Desdemona in a hilarious scene clearly inspired by Top Gun. The joyous revelry of the scene makes the tragedy stand out all the more. With a stark, minimalist design and a cast that will have you inadvertently digging your nails into your palms throughout, Othello is ruthlessly enthralling.

By the time the final act body count has reached its apex, the laughter is long gone. What you're left with is an unblinking, disquieting look at evil. Iago talks about the monster within, but it's not monsters that make Othello so powerful. It's the fact that Iago blends in perfectly with the world around him. He's someone you'd pass without a second glance. He's invisible, until it's too late. And that's what makes Othello at once frightening and thought-provoking.