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Iago's 'Honesty' Fits Our Times

Shakespeare Theatre Company, Sidney Harman Hall, Washington, D.C.
Wednesday, March 2, 2016, H–108&109 (center stalls)
Directed by Ron Daniels

Othello and others stand in military uniforms with olive green service jackets, khaki jodhurs, brown boots, billed caps with red bands around them; two of the soldiers have their swords drawn; Iago stands in front, legs wide apart, in shin-length brown leather trench coat.Othello (Faran Tahir, far left) commands a seemingly loyal troop of soldiers in Iago (Jonno Roberts, front), Cassio (Patrick Vaill, left) and a soldier played by Jackson Knight Pierce in the Shakespeare Theatre Company's production of William Shakespeare's Othello. Photo by Scott Suchman, Shakespeare Theatre Company.

He's your coworker, your neighbor, a friend. You eat lunch, hang out at barbecues, play golf, and go to ball games together. He gives good gossip. He's funny—funniest when he's railing against the injustices of authority because you get where he's coming from. You laugh at his off-color jokes, even if some of his racial and ethnic stereotypes make you uncomfortable, like calling Muslims "ragheads." He can't talk about women without including sexual inuendo, whether he's talking about a politician, an actress, your boss, your colleagues, your colleague's wife. His name is Iago.

Although written more than 400 years ago, this is the Iago we encounter in the Shakespeare Theatre Company's production of William Shakespeare's Othello under the clear-eyed direction of Ron Daniels. A veteran Shakespeare helmsman—honorary associate director of the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford, England, and former associate artistic director of the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts—Daniels presents a bare-bones staging of the play that, though he sets it 100 years ago, makes it uncomfortably reflective of our times.

It's not just that he cast Pakistani-American actor Faran Tahir as Othello, representing a Moor probably closer to that Shakespeare envisioned—a Muslim from the Ottoman Empire—than the trend of the past half century, concentrating on the character's "blackness" as a reference to skin color. Daniels also cast Jonno Roberts as a bonhomie but intensely opinionated Iago, whose xenophobia gurgles like a lava pit just in the way he pronounces Othello's ethnicity as "MOO-er." This is "honest" Iago, as everybody in the play calls him until the last page of the script. His version of "honesty" is, to use a popular phrase in the current zeitgeist, telling it like it is, though that's not the same as telling the truth. "I told him what I thought, and told him no more than what he found himself was apt and true," he says in defense of leading Othello into believing that his wife, Desdemona, was having sex with his lieutenant, Cassio. That could be a mission statement for current U.S. presidential candidates on the right, the left, and whatever spectrum Donald Trump is on. Yet, don't think I'm comparing Iago to any of them: I'm seeing Iago as representative of a large proportion of our population who ascribe to this kind of logic as "telling it like it is."

Scenic Designer Riccardo Hernandez sets the action in a wide-open industrial space, with huge air fans on the back wall and black barrels scattered on the sides (oil?). In the Cyprus domestic scenes, a huge tapestry of a heraldic lion lowers over the stage. Lighting Designer Christopher Akerlind does yeoman's work, dispersing light across the stage for segues in action and scene shifts, and when Othello and Iago kneel to take their vows of revenge on Desdemona and Cassio, their shadows are cast against the lion tapestry overhead. Costume Designer Emily Rebholz dresses the soldiers in British World War I uniforms and the Venetian lords and ladies in formal wear of the same period. I often find that such near-distant past settings work better for updating Shakespeare than modern dress, for we spend more intellectual capital reacting to the play's purposes than looking for the anachronisms. The World War I timeframe also serves an allegorical purpose as it mirrors the protracted conflict between Venice and the Ottoman Empire of Shakespeare's time; it also mirrors America's protracted deployments against Muslim foes.

Beyond that, grounding the play in a soldier's world is, for me, fundamental to fully comprehending the motives and reactions of its characters, male and female. Iago was passed over for promotion despite his long service with Othello in the wars. That gnaws at him. Iago also is a man's man, and mere hint of his own wife's infidelity further feeds his disenfranchisement psychosis. It doesn't matter why "some such squire…turned your wit the seamy side without and made you to suspect me with the Moor," as his wife, Emilia, tells him; that some such squire did so was enough for Iago to turn suggestion into truth and truth into action against Othello. Why does Emilia keep quiet about the handkerchief when Desdemona can't find it and Othello makes much of its loss? We military spouses don't question what our husbands and wives do, and we keep silent on their actions ostensibly for security reasons but really to protect their careers.

Desdemona hasn't learned her place as a military wife, and her constant harping to Othello about reinstating Cassio is out of tune for him; it easily plays into Iago's scheme to cast her relationship with Cassio as something more than friendship. By Iago's account, Cassio is merely a military bookkeeper and not a soldier of the field and thus not qualified to become Othello's lieutenant, especially compared to himself. Even if what Iago says is true (the only clear judgment we can make about Cassio from the text is that he can't handle his liquor), Othello gives an adequate qualifier when he reveals that Cassio served as his liaison in his courtship of Desdemona. Othello may be, in part, rewarding Cassio for that service (a role Othello knows Iago could never do—which points to Roderigo's naïveté in enlisting Iago for his own courtship of Desdemona); but it also is indicative of ying-yang command structures in which the general places an opposite in temperament as his or her deputy to broaden both strategic and troop effectiveness.

In this context—and in the context of 2016—Daniels' rendering of Othello strikes home with greater truth and power than any of the dozen I've seen before. I felt it not only in my own heart but in the vibe of the Washington, D.C., theater audience. Roberts doesn't try to enlist us as his confidantes; his Iago doesn't have to. When he counters Roderigo's intention to drown himself with "Drown thyself? Drown cats and blind puppies," Iago says it so seriously that it inspires a revolted reaction in the audience, to which Roberts responds with a Cheshire grin, and the audience chuckles in turn. Because we know what Iago is thinking—Roberts delivers the soliloquys as thinking out loud, working out concepts and strategy in stream-of-conscience spurts—when Cassio accepts Iago's advice to appeal to Othello through Desdemona, a murmur ripples through the audience. We see Iago's plan picking up speed. We see the train wreck coming. And we watch.

Characters are formed by minute details in the acting, and aside from a military exactness in the performance of the soldiers, this production is full of such key moments. Brabantio (Rufus Collins) leaves the stage with this warning: "Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see. She has deceived her father, and may thee." At the back of the stage, Iago watches Brabantio depart with rapt interest, as if the seed for the idea he will end up using against Othello was planted here. As he cons Roderigo (Ben Diskant, playing him as a Gatsby brat) into believing that Desdemona could yet become the dupe's lover, Iago argues that "it cannot be that Desdemona should long continue her love to the Moor." Then, he turns inward upon the line "She must change," the must reflecting his own white supremacy attitude. In this production, the intrinsic racism of the Venetians surfaces as they speak Shakespeare's lines—not just in Iago and Brabantio, but in the senators and Emilia, too.

When it comes to detail-rich performances, Merritt Janson gives a rapturously exquisite portrayal of Emilia. And I say "rapturously" because she does the bulk of her great character-forming work when the attention is on the other characters. Here's what we glean from the subtle actions and reactions in Janson's performance: whether like minds marry or she is the product of years in the company of Iago, Emilia shares her husband's attitude toward Othello; Desdemona (Ryman Sneed) is the commander's spouse whom Emilia must, perforce, serve, but she grows increasingly fond of the general's young wife and becomes something of a mentor—yet, she remains distanced enough to keep quiet about the handkerchief; years of being married to a soldier has taught Emilia pragmatism, not only in how she goes about the business of life but also the emotions of life. Emilia learning that Iago had led Othello so far astray as to kill his wife would be just another incident of her husband's delusions running amok—she's seen that before, though not to this extreme. Learning that Iago purposely manipulated Othello with the handkerchief exposes Emilia to a side of her husband she didn't know existed. All that Janson has done playing Emilia leads to a tragedy that parallels that of Desdemona's: the audience gasps when Iago stabs her.

Tahir's is not a noticeably dynamic Othello—at first—showing steady equilibrium in the face of all things: marriage, arrest, testifying to the Senate, military deployment, sea storms, and mutinous activity by his lieutenant. The great warrior of his own lore has evolved into an efficient and politically astute general. Daniels has cut some of Othello's mystical qualities—for example, after the brawl in Cyprus, he does not offer to doctor Montano's wound—and Tahir's performance borders on boring in the first several scenes. This, though, is an intentional facet of what proves to be a great performance, which clearly begins evolving when his Othello reacts to Iago's first insinuations about Cassio and Desdemona; Tahir presents Othello as genuinely puzzled and then nervously assessing the jealousy already beginning to course through his thoughts. Determinedly assimilated in the opening scenes, Tahir's Othello becomes his more culturally natural self as the play progresses, donning an Arabic robe over his uniform late in the play. The tipping point in Tahir's portrayal is with Othello's description of the handkerchief's history; Tahir talks of the weaving of the fabric by a 200-year-old prophetess and the mummy's dye and the magic of it all with fervid belief in his eyes. It's a side of Othello Desdemona has not seen, and the handkerchief becomes something more than a love token—something more dangerous. "Then would to God I had never seen it," she says. The subtlety of Tahir's performance is masterful, but his depiction of Othello's epileptic fit is stunningly, disturbingly real (as is Iago's tending to him, lying next to him on the stage, cradling him in his arms like a lover).

Iago (Jonno Roberts) tries to shush his wife, Emilia (Merritt Janson) in the Shakespeare Theatre Company's production of Othello. In Director Ron Daniels' staging, Emilia plays the dutiful part of a soldier's wife, until she sees the full extent of Iago's villainy. Photo by Scott Suchman, Shakespeare Theatre Company.

Sneed's Desdemona is a smart, young woman, but in over her head in Cyprus. Daniels goes to great lengths to establish Desdemona as something of an enigma: her first appearance, before the Senate, has her pause, bathed in light, with the strains of a sweet violin on the soundtrack, the only prominent use of music in the whole production. However, Sneed's Desdemona never elevates to the level of goddess; she's just a girl in the world, earnest in her love for Othello. One of the great effects of this play is that the audience can see what is heading Desdemona's way, but she hasn't a clue. In this production, we even get the strong sense that there is no reason for any of this to happen to Desdemona, or Othello, for that matter. It all comes about from Iago's sociopathic attitudes and Emilia's indifference, another reflection on society writ large in 2016.

The one misstep of this production is in the presentation of Cassio (Patrick Vaill). Iago describes Cassio as a "proper man," and Vaill shows Cassio to be a most proper soldier in his behavior around Othello—he stands at attention but has the air of being second-in-command, constantly following Othello's cues for his own actions. There's a noticeable exception to this: when, upon their arrival in Cyprus, he greets Emilia with a full-on-the-mouth kiss, excusing himself to Iago with "'tis my breeding, that gives me this bold show of courtesy" (newly promoted lieutenant taking license with the wife of the passed-over ancient? In Iago's worldview, it would seem so). After he is cashiered, though, Vaill's Cassio becomes a blubbering fool, crying in Iago's arms and whining to Desdemona. His behavior is not very soldier-like, and it shores up our opinion of Iago's assessment of the Florentine, and we wonder that Othello could be so taken in by the guy and that Desdemona continues to put up with him. In this light, this choice in portrayal could be in service to a presentation of this play that aligns us uncomfortably close with Iago and against the Moor.

Eric Minton
March 7, 2016

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