WHEN Through 7/15: Tue 7:30 PM, Wed-Fri 8 PM, Sat 4 and 8 PM, Sun 2:30 and 6 PM

WHERE Writers’ Theatre, 325 Tudor Ct., Glencoe

PRICE $40-$58

INFO 847-242-6000

Weird how little Othello’s blackness really matters. That other Venetian, Shylock, absolutely must be Jewish or The Merchant of Venice just plain falls apart. But as large as Othello’s skin color looms in our perception of him, it doesn’t actually do much. Sure, Desdemona’s father, Brabantio, goes into a racist rant when he finds out that Othello’s secretly married his baby. And you can argue that being so visibly alien primes the Moor to doubt his white wife’s fidelity, thereby triggering the sad events of Shakespeare’s play. There’s precious little, however, to suggest that Venice has been anything but hospitable to this particular black man. He’s a general, for God’s sake–proven in battle, trusted to fight the Turks and administer Cyprus on the doge’s behalf. Secure enough to woo a nobleman’s daughter. Brabantio’s complaints are entertained only out of politeness, because the old man’s a member of the doge’s council, then dismissed with good humor as soon as etiquette allows.

No, Othello’s race doesn’t matter in the tragic scheme of Othello. It’s just a cool diversion, a bit of exotica, like the play’s Mediterranean setting–thrown in to make things more interesting.

What genuinely matters is that black, brown, yellow, or Norwegian, Othello’s a fool: a powerful but startlingly limited man, in the manner of King Lear, whose position can’t save him from his own romantic idiocy. He says it, famously, himself: “Speak of me as I am. . . . Of one that loved not wisely but too well.” The “too well” is debatable, given that he’s just killed his wife. The “not wisely,” though: hard fact.

Which is why it’s disconcerting to see James Vincent Meredith in this Writers’ Theatre production, directed by Michael Halberstam, playing an Othello who radiates keen intelligence, projects enormous gravity, and makes no sense at all. After seeing the show, my elder son put it pretty well when he remarked that Meredith’s Moor “said so many stupid things so thoughtfully.”

And does them, too. Othello seems to be a competent campaigner, whether he’s finessing Brabantio’s parental rights or keeping Cyprus safe from invading “Ottomites” (though, truth be told, he gets a big assist from a storm that wrecks the Turkish fleet). He’s also smart enough to promote stalwart Cassio instead of master conniver Iago as his lieutenant. But then he goes and spoils it all by allowing the passed-over and profoundly pissed Iago to become his confidant and feed him the lies about Desdemona that pitch him off the deep end.

Granted, Iago’s a formidable nemesis whose moves, both subtle and outrageous, justify his reputation as one of the greatest stage villains. If Shakespeare had permitted him to marry, say, Lady Macbeth instead of Desdemona’s loyal, honest servant, Emilia, the play would be called “Iago” and end with him getting crowned emperor of Italy. Nevertheless, he should have a harder time pulling the wool over the eyes of a Venetian general. A man of Othello’s stature ought to know enough not to base his judgments entirely on intelligence received from a single, interested source. I mean, suppose President Bush did that? We’d all agree he was a fool unworthy of his position. Othello is basically the tragedy of a man risen beyond his capacities. And yet Meredith plays him as though he were Cicero at the Roman senate.

If there’s a positive aspect to this, it’s the contrast between Meredith and John Judd, who reminds me of Buddy Ebsen, playing Iago as a down-home, cutthroat Jed Clampett. Ebsen was a tap dancer before he became an actor, and Judd shares with him an odd, compelling, ungainly grace, like a cubist snake. His square, loping stumbles make it all the more surprising when he strikes and swallows his prey. Kelly Cooper is the perfect appetizer as Roderigo, a clownish rich boy who thinks Iago can get him a date with Desdemona. Braden Moran’s Cassio makes a much more substantial meal, embodying the strength, modesty, integrity, and–above all–innocence that Iago savors on his forked tongue. Karen Janes Woditsch is essentially a snake handler as Emilia: someone who likes the feel of a reptile’s cool skin but has learned to keep track of where the teeth are.

Suzanne Lang is an excellent actress physically miscast as Desdemona. Attractive in the style of Laura Linney, she communicates a loving rectitude that earns our sympathy and highlights Othello’s disastrous foolishness but never justifies the rafts of testosterone directed her way. Through no real fault of her own, Lang seems as off as Meredith.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Othello photo by Michael Brosilow.