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Modern touches distract from power of 'Othello'

“Othello,” which opened the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s 83rd season last weekend, is a contemporary performance of passionate, poisonous love and betrayal.

Othello is the Moor, a victorious and battle-hardened, dark-skinned general in service to Venice. He wins the heart of fair Desdemona and together they travel to Cyprus, where Othello administers that remote, island land. The essence of the play, though, is Iago’s two-faced trickery, spreading gossip and lies that betray his lord, Othello, and the divine Desdemona. Iago deceives even his own wife, his comrades and closest friends, destroying reputations and drawing them ever closer to a dark demise.

Iago, played by Danforth Comins, is at the center of the web of falsehoods and treachery forming the jealous maelstrom that is “Othello.” Comins was an excellent villain as Brutus in “Julius Caesar” and an absolute brute as Stanley Kowalski in “Streetcar Named Desire.” In “Othello,” though, Comins plays this essential role not as sinister but in clever and clownish ways. The moments when his evil core is best revealed occur when he breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to the audience. During these interludes, Iago’s envy, bitterness and hatred pour forth, but the power of Comins’ address is compromised and viewers are distracted when as the house lights are raised, the audience is revealed.

Chris Butler, in his third OSF season, plays Othello and does so nobly. Everything about Butler’s bearing and words shout his honor and loyalty, and these are the qualities that most set Butler’s Othello apart from the others in the cast. But Iago has Othello’s ear and heart, and before long the worm of jealousy will eat at Othello’s brain and drive him mad.

Except for the pure of heart Montano, played by Barzin Akhavan, the male characters in this OSF production have few honorable scenes. Sixpacks of beer fuel drunken brawls and "booyas," and Shakespeare’s lusty witticisms have a different feel in the context of these players’ very contemporary contempt for women. Roderigo, played by Stephen Michael Spencer, is very much the buffoon, alternating between belief in Iago’s promises and denial.

In contrast, “Othello’s” female leads are powerfully played as honest and true, giving weight to honor and loyalty as dominant themes in this production.

Alejandra Escalante is brilliant as Desdemona, and she is a welcome return to this season’s OSF casting. Desdemona’s beauty, poise and loyalty to her husband are without fault. Ignorant of Iago’s deceit, she accepts her lot and walks toward death with regret, yes, and also with undying love and devotion for her lord.

Also exceptional is Amy Kim Waschke as Emilia, who moves smoothly between her personal and professional capacities as handmaiden to Desdemona and naval officer. Waschke as Emilia played her allegiances to lord and lady with grace and integrity, and in the end, denounces her husband’s fictions.

True to herself and her role is Rainbow Dickerson in the role of Bianca. Dickerson is vigorous and boastful and direct in Bianca’s lusty enjoyment of Cassio, played by Derek Garza. As are most of the other male leads, Garza plays Cassio as a cad, a questionable leader of men even though he commands the port.

The set is spare and clean. There are few props, and with the small cast, the performance is an intimate expression on the expanse of the Angus Bowmer Theatre’s stage. Translucent moving sections transform the set into a Venetian home, street or command post and when aside, a stone bastion backdrops the set to serve as quay and fortifications on the island of Crete. Spotlights, projections and a row of screens change the time of day, suggest the smoke and mirrors of Iago’s words and alter the space into an exotic Middle Eastern bed chamber.

Director Bill Rauch's notes establish his intent that “Othello” is a play about differences, those of religion, gender, race, nation — within the structure of an American naval force stationed in Greece. In Rauch’s filmed commentary on the play, he says that the contemporary setting allows him to bring Shakespeare’s lines to the stage with the most precision and greatest force.

But are the differences between nations, religion and race really at the center of this production of “Othello?” It seems that the language of the play is more descriptive than separating, and at times, actors seemed to rush through lines emphasizing difference when they could have paused to savor and amplify the intent. Yes, Othello calls himself a fool and disparages his blackness. Yes, Iago decries the Moor. But one wonders, whose heart is black? That of the Moor, or Iago? The differences evident in this OSF production are not so much between nations or among men, they are between those who are noble and honest and those who are not.

As always, an Oregon Shakespeare Festival performance is beyond compare, but in this production of “Othello,” Rauch’s intents are less than fulfilled and his intentions are diminished by "booyas" and text message notifications.

At three hours and 15 minutes with a 15-minute intermission, “Othello” is one of the longer performances of the season. There are adult themes and language suitable for adult and mature teen audiences. “Othello” continues in the Angus Bowmer Theatre through Oct. 28.

— Maureen Flanagan Battistella is a freelance writer who lives in Ashland, Oregon. She can be reached at mbattistellaor@gmail.com.

Iago (Danforth Comins), left, preys on the insecurities of Othello (Chris Butler) in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's 'Othello.' [Photo courtesy of OSF / Jenny Graham]