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Theatre Review (Houston): The Alley Theatre Performs Othello

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In staging a physical, swiftly moving Othello, the Alley Theatre puts itself in the service of the breathless, verbal power of Shakespearean treachery. In a refreshing departure from the hot air balloon “gossip” theme underlying the company's 2006 rendering of Much Ado About Nothing, director Scott Schwartz puts the revenge plot before high-flying stage concepts. His strategy works.

James Black offers a nuanced, serio-comic vision of the villain Iago, and Elizabeth Bunch presents a visually stunning Desdemona delivering soulful, well-articulated lines. As Cassio, Brandon Hearnsberger, who also happens to be a voiceover artist for ADV Films, never forgets that it’s incumbent on Shakespearean actors to focus on the words first. His instincts for playing Othello’s duped lieutenant are strong, his portrayal solid. Jeffrey Bean is equally impressive as Lodovico, the Venetian nobleman who cathartically orders Iago’s punishment and utters the play’s proverbial last lines.

Othello, a noble Moor and Venetian Army general, seems to set off his ensign Iago’s plan for revenge against him when he appoints Cassio as his personal lieutenant. It’s always been hard for modern audiences to square Othello’s simple act with the extremes of Iago’s behavior. But Shakespeare’s audiences didn’t expect discourses on personal motive, as we do in our self-obsessed age. When an angry Iago meets with Roderigo, who is incensed because Othello has eloped with a woman he loves, the play’s revenge plot is put in motion.

Othello’s secret marriage to Desdemona angers her father, Senator Brabantio, not least because the general is black. Iago makes him aware of the elopement using streams of profanity beneath the Senator’s window, saying “an old black ram/Is tupping your white ewe!” and “your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs.” The news that his daughter has married a black African causes Brabantio to shun her, just as Othello is called away to a new command in Cyprus. Iago promises Roderigo that Desdemona will stray and that he will win her eventually. Then Iago makes us privy to a detailed plan to get back at Othello by convincing him that his new wife is dallying with none other than Cassio, his first lieutenant.

Alley veteran James Black showcases Iago, Shakespeare’s greatest villain, with nimble dexterity. His rapid-fire delivery works well, although he, like others in this talented cast, often gets going so fast that his lines are hard to follow. The scenic design and the lighting and sound nicely underscore Black’s interpretation. Schwartz, the director, also finds creative ways to keep the villain’s never-ending soliloquy visually stimulating. In one early speech, Iago divulges key portions of his plan under a spotlight while Cassio and Desdemona stand suggestively mute in the darkened background, a device that illuminates the evil mechanism of Iago’s plot.

The major flaw in this production appears in moments before and after Desdemona’s murder. Here, curiously, David Rainey’s otherwise excellent portrayal of the noble, misguided Moor goes wildly off-pitch and elicits laughter where a shocked audience normally remains silent. Elizabeth Heflin’s portrayal of Emilia, Iago’s wife and Desdemona’s mistress, falls similarly off-kilter during the cathartic moments following the murder. When Emilia realizes her husband is the true architect of Desdemona’s death, Heflin overdoes it and ruins the moment.

Early on, Othello and Desdemona weather a shipwreck while being transported from Venice to Cyprus. Leaving the security of Venice on a precarious journey by sea into an uncertain future is essentially the start of their undoing. This show elegantly transforms the Alley’s Hubbard stage into a gargantuan ship that serves as an effective motif of the couple’s new life on the isle of Cyprus.

The maritime set design inspires floor-to-ceiling movement all over the house and clever stagecraft onstage. Likewise, many scenes originate in very elevated portions of the house, adding to the maritime atmosphere. The creative use of entrances and exits enhances the prevailing mood of apprehension.

Both the ship motif and the production’s sheer physicality heighten the vulnerability of Othello, Cassio, Roderigo, Desdemona, and Emilia – all of whom are cruelly misled and manipulated by the villain Iago.

The Alley Theatre’s production of Othello runs through March 30.

About Cynthia Greenwood