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A CurtainUp Review

Good name in man and woman's, dear my lord;
Is the immediate jewel of their souls.
Who steals my purse steals trash; 'tis something, nothing;
'Twas mind, 'tis his, and has been slave to thousands;But he that filches from me my goodname
Robs me of that which not enriches him,
And makes me poor indeed.

-----Iago, illustrating Shakespeare's penchant for having some of his basest villains give lip service to high moral values.
Keith David & Liev Schreiber
Keith David & Liev Schreiber
(Photo: Michael Daniel)
Some early critics dismissed Othello as a bloody farce which makes much ado about a lost handkerchief. Despite the coincidence and overuse of that prop as a catalyst for a crisis in trust, this story of the tragic consequences of jealousy remains one of Shakespeare's most durable plays. This latest production is exceptionally compelling. It is straightforward, elegantly staged and swiftly paced, without any attempt to soft pedal the racial issue overarching the situation of the admired black warrior whose marriage to fair-skinned Desdemona is an affront to her father.

Almost every actor of note has at least once ventured to play the role of Othello, the Moor who is strong and self-confident on the battlefield but vulnerable to self-doubt in his domestic life. But as Othello falls prey to the suspicions planted by the duplicitous Iago, so actors playing the hero are also often upstaged by the villain so that many have alternately played both roles. (The villain's part is also the longer).

Iago is indeed the driving force stirring up the tempest of suspicion in the new-found domestic bliss of the "boss" he hates because he has made Cassio and not him his chief lieutenant. And as played by Liev Schreiber, this is a riveting, cooly malevolent and deeply insecure malcontent who draws you in whether eloquently delivering a soliloquy or standing on the aisle steps which serve as the main entryway to the stage.

Schreiber's handsome, even-featured face at times looks immobile and smooth as a statue — yet, with an ever so slight twitch, a tightening of the lips, an imperceptible shift in stance, he conveys his ever-changing emotional temperature. His malice is relentless but never one-note. It churns with sexual undercurrents as well as humor that is at once sly and frightening humor — for example, there is a scene when his insinuations about Othello's wife and Cassio send Othello into an epileptic fit. As Iago calmly places a knife into the writhing man's mouth there's little doubt that it wouldn't take much to use that knife as a deadly weapon instead of a life-saving device.

While Keith David's Othello is not as satisfyingly intricate as Schreiber's Iago, his booming baritone lends feeling and clarity to the Moor's lines. Most importantly, he creates the right sense of dignity (contrary to the usual "tragedy of jealousy " tag this is above all a play about preserving and restoring damaged egos) and matches the true-to-the text visual image of an older man who has found love with a much younger and beautiful woman. David is tall and attractive with the aura of power and success that have proved themselves an aphrodisiac for so many young women. As Desdemona, the woman in this instance, Kate Forbes is ideally cast as this early incarnation of the trophy wife. She is a big woman, sweet, but not silly, submissive yet aware of her sexual power.

Doug Hughes has elicited good work from all the players, even those with small parts — like George Morfogen as the Duke of Venice and Jack Ryland as Senator Barbanito who entreats the Duke to rule against the clandestine union of his daughter Desdemona and Othello.

In the larger subsidiary roles Becky Ann Baker is impressive as Iago's put upon and yet feisty and independent minded wife, Emilia. Her confrontations with Iago clarify the sexual emptiness of the marriage and the deeper problems driving his overall behavior (including a scene near the end in which he seductively comforts the distraught Desdemona in front of Emilia). Emilia's accusatory rage at Othello are affecting. Her death is mercifully swifter than Othello's rather inept strangling of Desdemona. For this viewer, the more usual smothering with a pillow would have worked better.

Christopher Evan Welch, who has had previous experience honing his skills (especially as Rosencrantz in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern) as a not-too-swift, Shakespearian loser, is at his comic best as Roderigo, the Venetian gentleman whom Iago inveigles into his web of mischief, as he also inveigles Cassio who is played with proper nobility by Jay Goede.

The production values are superb. Neil Patel's set is deceptively simple — a square playing area with a bare green marbled center that eventially springs open to reveal Desdemona's bed and a half dozen mesh screens on wheels. As the play begins Robert Wierzel's lights turn the entire floor green and bathe the screens in red. Wierzel also does dazzlingly dramatic things to reveal the cunning, inner Iago, most memorably in a scene when Iago triumphantly faces a giant shadow of himself, a mirror of his unleashed ego. The minimal props are offset by Catherine Zuber's lush costumes with colors veering from pure white to bloody red. David Van Tieghem's moody original score effectively punctuates the unfurling passions.

The three hours that pass between Iago's first blunt declaration "I Hate the Moor" to his shiver-y exit go by faster than many a ninety-minute show. Do take time out from your holiday shopping to give yourself the gift of seeing this not to be missed revival. Unless it extends, Othello will close before you can say "Happy New Year."

Othello with Patrick Stewart
Othello NAATCO production
Hamlet with Liev Schreiber

Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Doug Hughes
Starring Keith David (Othello), Liev Schreiber (Iago)
Cast: Remy Auberjonois (Third Gentleman, Officer) Becky Ann Baker, Emilia) Corey Behnke (Ensemble), Paul Vincent Black(Ensemble), Lea Coco (Ensemble), Gregory Derelian(Officer, Attendant) Mark H. Dold(Second Gentleman, Attendant), Kate Forbes(Desdemona), Jay Goede(Cassio), George Morfogen(Duke of Venice), Natacha Roi (Bianca), Jack Ryland(Brabantio), Thomas Schall (Gratiano), Thom Sesma(Montano), Dan Snook (Lodovico), Robert Steffen (Ensemble), Chistopher Evan Welch (Roderigo)
Set Design: Neil Patel
Costume Design: Catherine Zuber
Lighting Design: Robert Wierzel
Original Music and Sound Design: David Van Tieghem
Fight Director: Rick Sordelet
Running Time: 3 hours including one intermission
Anspacher Theater, 425 Lafayette
St. 212/239-6200
11/20/01-12/30/01; opening 12/09/01. Tues-Sat 8pm, Wed, Sat. Sun at 2pm -- $45.
Reviewed by Elyse Somme based on December 8th matinee press preview.

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