Verdi's operatic distillation of Shakespeare's Othello — not to mention run-of-the-mill stage productions — can lead us to forget that there are more than two or three fascinating characters in the Bard's darkest love tragedy. The Collaborative Arts presentation at McGlohon Theatre, capping its fifth annual Charlotte Shakespeare Festival, reminds us that there are six or seven.
Yes, to bring down the mighty Moor of Venice, the implacable Iago must cajole, manipulate or browbeat a whole circle of unwitting collaborators while fiendishly weaving his web. Othello is merely the beginning. To help change the Moor's fervid adoration of Desdemona to blind jealousy and murderous repugnance, Iago enlists his wife Emilia in stealing Des' hanky. To stoke Othello's suspicion that Desdemona is carrying on a clandestine affair with Michael Cassio, Iago must contrive to plunge Othello's favorite lieutenant into disfavor — and then have Desdemona plead for his restoration.
Desdemona's secret admirer, Roderigo, becomes Iago's confederate in provoking Cassio into a quarrel — after Iago plies him with drink. And it's Iago who suggests to Cassio that he call upon Desdemona to plead his cause. A virtuoso juggler, Iago has Othello, Cassio and Roderigo all believing that he is their best friend, diligently working on their behalf.
Senator Brabantio has warned Othello to "look after" his daughter Desdemona in the most cynical sense possible. Brabantio isn't telling his new son-in-law to take care of his new wife, as we might expect of a father awakened to his daughter's elopement. Instead, he's warning the man who has stolen his pearl to take care that she doesn't deceive him as she has already deceived her father.
That's pretty cold, but the whole arraignment and vindication of Othello in Act 1, altogether skipped over in the Verdi scenario, is a wonderful foundation for the tragedy to follow. For it shows Iago that Othello will not easily be brought down — while Brabantio's warning shows him the surer path.
From the outset of this Collaborative Arts gem, when Jennifer Lynn Barnette as Desdemona is pleading Othello's worthiness to Peter Smeal, we see what a difference a deep cast can make. Smeal's affront and rage as Brabantio are towering enough — and Barnette's pleadings are simple and honest enough — to make the parallel with Lear and Cordelia in their opening scene pop into sharpest focus.
With Brian Seagroves as a vainer-than-rich, stupider-than-vain Roderigo, we're frequently reminded that being somebody else's patsy can be downright funny. As Cassio, Adam Ewer shows us how subtly drawn Othello's disgraced lieutenant is, for among his frailties are a weakness for drink, a smiling presumption with the ladies, and a gnawing self-doubt.
Derrick Parker deftly bestrides the extremes of Othello — the amorous groom, the commanding general, and the insanely jealous husband — while steering clear of the Miles Gloriosus pomposity of the famed Olivier portrayal. If the transition to madman occurs too abruptly, it can be blamed on director Elise Wilkinson's cutting too much from the script. Her co-producer Joe Copley makes a wily, politic Iago, the antithesis of operatic. While this approach works wonderfully when duping Cassio and Roderigo, some more melodramatic gloating when he brings Othello to his knees would give us a blacker devil.
Were it not for Parker's anguished enlightenment and knife-sharp regret, Christine Dougan would surely have stolen the final scene as Emilia. The force of the rebukes she spits at Othello after Desdemona's murder are equaled by the horror she registers learning her part in Iago's evil design — and the white-hot scorn she hurls in his face. Wilkinson does an especially fine job there.
Othello, free at Spirit Square through Aug. 15, solicits donations. Bring a hefty one.