One of Shakespeare’s more popular tragedies, the tale focuses on the Moor war general Othello, his marriage to Desdemona, and his scheming captain Iago. Set designer James Noone has constructed a sparse wooden set, to symbolize the ships Othello and company travel on, creating a wide open space for the actors to tell the story. Director Ted Pappas makes good use of the openness and keeps the action rolling smoothly, never letting the energy get bogged down (which is good because the show has a slightly-less than three hour run time).
Returning from his touring of de force last year in An Iliad is Teagle F. Bougere in the title role. Bougere gives Othello a great deal of swagger, a cool and confident man who has everything he could ever want (great job, loving wife, minimal racism). As the events unfold, however, we see him begin to deteriorate thanks to the lies spewed by Iago. The villain manages to convince Othello that all these unbelievable, life-ruining things are true and poor O (I call him O) can’t begin to handle it. Bougere’s second act performance is alarmingly unhinged, so different from the confident general in the first half that it makes you uneasy while also breaking your heart.
Like most Shakespeare plays named after a character, the real star is someone else (remember how Caesar has like five scenes in his play?). The “someone else” in this case is the soulless Iago (Jeremy Kushnier), who never lets up on his quest to simply be a dick. Many of the laughs in the show come from the lies Iago continuously spouts and the webs he weaves. Kushnier is fantastic to watch; we aren’t just seeing him act, we’re seeing Iago act as well. He relishes in the damage he causes, shown especially in an act one scene where Iago starts a fight amongst the soldiers. While they brawl, Iago struts around the edge of the stage, his face lit up in a satisfied and evil grin.
What motivates Iago to be such a jackass is intentionally unclear. There is no mention of money or power (if there is, I missed it); he simply hates Othello and wants to destroy his life. Iago is the physical embodiment of evil, a psychopath with no regard to anyone but himself. He is also a betrayer, someone who will go to the final circle of Hell with the worst of the worst. With Iago, Shakespeare shows us that evil exists and can be relentless. He’s an envious little shit who’s very entertaining to watch.
Desdemona is a bit different than Shakespeare’s other tragic leading ladies. She’s no Lady Macbeth, who was crazy, or Juliet, who was an idiot. Desdemona does absolutely nothing wrong and is punished for it, making hers one of the more tragic stories. Amanda Leigh Cobb plays Desdemona not as a foolish girl or doting wife, but rather a woman who is utterly confused at the insanity going on around her and heartbroken at the cruelty her husband shows her. I was also surprised by the character of Emilia, Desdemona’s maidservant and Iago’s wife, after her mistress’s demise. Rather than shriek in fear and run away, Emilia stands up to Othello, Iago, and a room full of men and is the first to figure out her husband’s schemes. She’s a much stronger character than you’d imagine at first glance, and a lot of credit goes to Jessica Wortham who really tears it up in the last minutes of the show.
The rest of the large cast is chock full of returning PPT favorites and everyone does solid work (Shakespeare likes lot of characters and I can’t rave about them all). The simplistic set combines with well-placed lighting and a dramatic old war-like soundtrack to construct a suspenseful mood. I’ll add my usual disclaimer that it’s always wise to read a little synopsis of Shakespeare to help you out if you’re unfamiliar with it (I definitely did for this; I didn’t even know what a Moor was). The Public has a strong production going on now and I recommend giving it a look if you want to see the bearded face of evil.
Othello runs through May 17th at the Pittsburgh Public Theater. Tickets and more information can be found here.