Chicago Shakespeare Company

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“Trifles light as air are to the jealous confirmations strong as proofs of holy writ,” says Iago of Othello’s too quick suspicion of his wife’s adultery, a doubt Iago cultivates like a poison plant. But he might well be referring to himself. Iago, too, is eaten by the “green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on.”

Twice Shakespeare has “honest” Iago mention as motivation for his boundless malice his suspicion that Othello slept with his wife, Emilia. But the jealousy is a smoke screen, a pretext for the real cause–Iago’s festering envy. He envies Othello for his military and political success. He begrudges Othello the unquestioning love he feels for and receives from Desdemona, a perfect sharing this misogynist has never known with Emilia. He bitterly resents brave Cassio’s promotion over himself. The reason Iago can manipulate Othello’s doubts into the full-blown fury of groundless jealousy is that, however cold-blooded his cruelties, he’s been there himself.

Larry Neumann Jr. shows this and more in his intricately devious Iago, the bulwark of this Chicago Shakespeare Company production of Othello. Though sick with hatred, Neumann’s villain is not so selfish that he’ll keep it to himself. Like Richard III, he’s got plans for everyone’s downfall, perhaps his own as well–we’re talking death wish here.

Contorting a face as sharp as his character is cunning, Neumann hatches Iago’s plans with devilish relish. As he details his dirty deeds, he wades into the audience, as if wanting our approval for his wickedness. One night he just might trigger a dissent.

Neumann’s intensity makes Iago the main standard of energy for William Payne’s ambitious but uneven three-and-a-half-hour staging. Necessarily uneven. Though Shakespeare’s great domestic tragedy benefits from the bard’s most streamlined story telling, Othello is still a killer show. With next to no comic relief, the scenes leap from one peak to another; it’s easy for actors to lose their footing altogether.

At first David Barr’s Othello seems to do just that. His Moor of Venice comes off as careful, hesitant, even–of all things–suspicious and introverted; this is no reckless warrior or too trusting lover ripe for corruption. But Barr’s calm sets off the inevitable storm. When Iago works his worst, Barr matches it with a display of combustible confusion that makes Othello’s strangely helpless rage hit you where it hurts. (You also sense how much Iago has played on Othello’s fear that he doesn’t deserve Desdemona.) Barr can’t always sustain or build the rage, but then few actors are up to the lacerating exposure Shakespeare forces on his Moor.

Where Iago is anchored in evil, Desdemona is a set of variations on a theme of innocence–unsuspecting, indignant, or wounded. Concentrated as it is, the role still demands more variation than Shira Piven gives it. Piven certainly suggests Desdemona’s childlike tenderness, but she hobbles the part with a premature and enervating mournfulness, as if Desdemona is beaten before she even knows she’s threatened. In her attempts at pathos Piven also tends to warble too much; it got so I couldn’t stop guessing when the next warble would come and how many tremolos there’d be per line. (The record was three.)

Payne’s other players are neither less than competent nor overly inspired. Colleen Crimmins’s perky Emilia is such a fount of energy that her scenes with Desdemona nearly suck Piven into a dramatic black hole. Never hitting a false note, John Kevin Forsythe’s forthright Cassio pulls off his drunk scene especially well. Myron Freedman as Roderigo, the rich ninny who is in love with Desdemona and whom Iago strips of everything but his stupidity, is an unexpected delight, a whining blusterer out of commedia dell’arte. As choreographed by Tim Gregory, Roderigo’s final fight with Cassio is a fairly scary metal banger.

Payne’s staging certainly has the right look, especially Michael Biddle’s set, which is suggestive of dark Renaissance motifs, and Kim Fencl’s contrastingly colorful costumes. But Payne takes some odd and possibly unforgivable liberties with the credibility of his own direction. In the midst of a serious scene he’ll have actors suddenly chirp a line in unison like performing seals. During the storm scene an actor gets a bucketful of water in the face, and another holds out his scarf on a stick to moronically suggest the wind. In another scene Roderigo stupidly sucks on an anachronistic lollipop. Worst of all, Payne makes Peter DeFaria play the small part of the clown as a blind man–for whatever paltry yuks that doesn’t provide. All these idiocies occur in the midst of an otherwise straightforward staging–and make you wonder if one of the rehearsals went temporarily insane and left these as evidence.

But don’t let the bad vaudeville throw you off. Where it counts, this Othello has most of what it takes.