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Rauch delivers an outstanding 'Othello'

As Bill Rauch's role as artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival draws to a close, we are reminded of the extraordinary capacity he has built during his 13 or so years at the festival — a creative, artistic and production value-add for the company that would be difficult to replicate. Rauch has no peer nationally who has managed to do as much as he has managed to do for OSF during his tenure. The quality of the work, the breadth and depth of professional knowledge and sensitivity that he has delivered during what is already recognized as a game-changing era for OSF is a rare thing indeed.

It should therefore come as a surprise to no one that Rauch's directorial stab at Othello — a play that has not been done at OSF in over a decade, an unusually long time for the company — is a rare and beautiful take on one of Shakepeare's most popular tragedies.

Production values are exquisite — sparse but powerful set design, gorgeous lighting and audio visual components and good contemporary costuming. The ensemble cast, a group of just 12 actors in keeping with Rauch's vision for an "intimate tragedy," are all strong, veteran actors with a deep understanding of their role in the action.

If the vision was to keep the play astutely discreet while still creating enough of an expansive dynamic to fill the 600-seat Angus Bowmer Theatre with energy, the cast and crew have succeeded admirably. The acting, like the production, is elegant and sinewy, with a fine eye for detail and dynamics which are a credit to the level at which these artists are operating. You may love or hate me for saying it (and it may have been an intentional signal to the East by Rauch), but the show looks and feels as though it could have been plopped down comfortably at a preeminent New York or West End theater and been quite at home.

At the epicenter of this exemplary acting ensemble is the astonishing Chris Butler. Mr. Butler's Othello is handled with great power, specificity and respect. He is a man who is out of step with his time by reason of religion, race and origins. He has come up through it all despite the prejudices of his era. Butler articulates Othello as a man who carries the wound of the underdog, but also the strength of the survivor. His Othello is dignified, robust, cunning and passionate.

There is an aspect to Butler's acting style that mirrors the structure of this production. He is accessible, but not energetically condescending. A patron who engages well and pays close attention will see a multi-faceted and deeply rewarding performance from an excellent actor. With just two OSF seasons under his belt, Butler will be an artist to watch in coming years.

As Desdemona, Alejandra Escalante brings her considerable talents to bear with her usual chameleon-like aptitude, breathing life into what, for this production, is a more traditionally feminine inamorata to the Moorish General. Compare Escalante's work here to her 2017 turn as Hotspur in the Henry's, and you'll see that her range is quite astonishing. OSF's resident ingenue continues to grow from strong performance to strong performance.

As Iago, Danforth Comins is king of the insidious soliloquy; house lights are raised for these brilliant asides, with Iago in a pinpoint spotlight as he gleefully plots and schemes against his commanding officer. Comins is brilliant when it comes to balancing tragic circumstance with comic nuance. His face in these moments is misshapen and grotesque, a kabuki-like affectation that seems to keep the audience riveted.

Richard Howard, cast in a handful of roles here, is excellent as Brabantio, the patrician Senator and father to Desdemona, coming over as the benevolent but baffled older relative who can't quite get beyond his old-fashioned prejudices. Steven Michael Spencer — perhaps in danger of being typecast if this is to continue — does a splendid job as OSF's go-to guy for bawdy allusion and comic relief in his role as Roderigo.

It's a taut, beautifully oiled piece of stagecraft with exceptional acting and brilliant direction — just the thing to launch a new season of excellence at a company that can't seem to stop topping itself. See Othello as soon as you can.

—Ashland resident Jeffrey Gillespie is a Daily Tidings columnist, arts reviewer and freelance writer. Email him at gillespie.jeffrey@gmail.com.