Review: ‘Othello’ at Shakespeare Theatre Company

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General Othello breaks up a drunken duel. The crowd of cheering military men disperses, and all that remains are Iago, Othello’s trusted advisor, and Lieutenant Cassio, who was also the instigator of this fight. Cassio has just been robbed of his good name with Othello. The stage is completely bare, and the Lieutenant cries, “Reputation, reputation, reputation! Oh, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial. My reputation, Iago, my reputation!”

Ryman Sneed (Desdemona) and Faran Tahir (Othello). Photo by Scott Suchman.
Ryman Sneed (Desdemona) and Faran Tahir (Othello). Photo by Scott Suchman.

In Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of Othello, Director Ron Daniels stages this scene beautifully, placing Iago and Cassio at the bottom right corner of the stage, making the two alone in a completely bare space. This was just one example of how Daniels worked with his designers to bring the important themes of the play to life, which are so clearly stated in Cassio’s speech. Reputation is everything, and while it can bring immense power, it can also be taken away in an instant. This concept of reputation and the power of language, get to the heart of what this play is really about.

Written by William Shakespeare and directed by Daniels, Othello is the famous story of the Moor of Venice. The play follows Othello (Faran Tahir), a Moor who is promoted to General. Iago (Jonno Roberts), jealous of Othello’s success, swears to take revenge through attacking Othello’s good name. What is the most effective manner? Reputation. Othello has just married Desdemona (Ryman Sneed), daughter of Senator Brabantio (Rufus Collins), which is a whole new controversy due to the racial differences, and Iago sets out on an extravagant plan to trick Othello into believing he has been cuckolded by Lieutenant Cassio (Patrick Vaill).

Patrick Vaill (Cassio) and Natascia Diaz (Bianca). Photo by Scott Suchman.
Patrick Vaill (Cassio) and Natascia Diaz (Bianca). Photo by Scott Suchman.

The production, as a whole, is visually striking, starting with Set Designer Riccardo Hernandez’s stage, which was raked, creating a ramp leading to a tunnel at the back of the stage through which characters could enter. Other than some barrels on either side, the stage itself was bare, which was particularly fascinating in light of the central themes. Shakespeare presents a story in which characters are crushed through not physical weapons, but the power of language. Iago is able to completely unravel Othello based on a string of lies. Similar to the empty stage, there are no physical obstacles or signs of proof that can support Iago’s claims, only a manipulation of words, which feeds into Othello’s imagination.

Lighting Designer Christopher Akerlind and Sound Designer/Composer Fitz Patton worked together to further enhance the performance. One particularly remarkable scene was when Othello sinks down to his knees and calls upon the devil for revenge. The sound of drums slowly increases in volume, almost like a heartbeat, and red light filled the front of the stage where he kneeled. I could feel my pulse quickening in response to the design elements at play as I watched the events unfold, curious to see how he would proceed. Costume Designer Emily Rebholz added to the aesthetic and highlighted key traits of the characters, particularly in Othello and Desdemona.

Tahir showcased an incredible transformation from powerful, proper General to the crazed man consumed with jealousy due to Iago’s accusations. I felt fear as I watched him seek his revenge, and Rebholz’s costuming reflected this change. As he became increasingly obsessed with his revenge, Rebholz slowly took away the military the gear, and replaced the costume with robes of dark red, like blood. Throughout the play Othello is accused of a wild nature due to his being a Moor, and the costuming helped highlight the idea that surrendering to these emotions caused Othello to live up to those fears.

From the moment we meet Desdemona, she is dressed in white, emphasizing her innocence. In contrast, all of the other characters were seen in a variation of brown, green, and other Earth tones. Even when Desdemona is accused of adultery, but Rebholz’s costuming choice accentuated the idea that this woman is the only character who remains pure.

This especially became clear in one of the final scenes with Desdemona, which was also one of the more powerful. This takes place immediately after Othello expresses anger towards Desdemona, but she does not yet know why. Emilia (Merritt Janson) was helping her dress for bed, which required pulling off the white dress to reveal a white slip. In the process, Desdemona (Ryman Sneed) sang a song in a ghostly angelic voice that rang throughout the theater, with lyrics emphasizing her conflicted emotions over going to bed with a man she fears. The combination of design elements created the feeling of a sacrifice of the virgin, and the two women played the conflict of the moment beautifully.

 Jonno Roberts (Iago) and Merritt Janson (Emilia). Photo by Scott Suchman.
Jonno Roberts (Iago) and Merritt Janson (Emilia). Photo by Scott Suchman.

Roberts’ Iago is absolutely mesmerizing, and my eye was constantly drawn to him. The ironic element of his character is that he spews lies, but he is named ‘Honest Iago.’ Daniels found the perfect moments for Iago to break the fourth wall and speak to the audience, making us his confidante, and the only ones to see his true honesty, which was an intriguing choice.

This is a very talented ensemble that has great chemistry together. I especially enjoyed Natascia’s Diaz’s passionate and emotional Bianca. She brought fire to the stage every time she appeared.

With brilliant direction, powerful acting, and clever design, Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Othello is an event you do not want to miss!

Running Time: Two hours and 40 minutes, with an intermission.

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Othello plays through Sunday March 27, 2016 at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, performing at Sidney Harman Hall– 610 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 547-1122, or purchase them online.

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