Iago, You Bastard

One thing you have to say about the New Theatre: It's not afraid to take on gigantic plays. Rafael De Acha's troupe has assayed such monsters as Angels in America, Electra, and Hamlet in recent seasons. Now the New brings two more Shakespeares, termed "The Shakespeare Project," running all summer on its tiny Coral Gables stage -- and in repertory, no less. Repertory -- the use of the same corps of actors in multiple plays that rotate nightly -- used to be a standard theatrical practice but is now little-seen. Repertory is difficult to produce -- the actors must be able to handle a variety of roles and remember a whole lot of lines. The production staff has to change sets and costumes daily. But the rewards of rep are exceptional. Audiences can catch several plays in a short time span with the added kick of seeing favorite actors strut their stuff in different roles in different plays. The acting company in turn gains cohesiveness by working together on various projects. This is especially true of Shakespeare, where the plays lend subtle textures and resonances to one another. De Acha's choice of Othello to lead off his two-play rep is an excellent one. With its themes of sexual jealousy, betrayal, and destruction, Shakespeare's tragedy is a natural progression from the New's successful production of Nilo Cruz' Anna in the Tropics, which also explored these themes. Add to this De Acha's penchant for poetic language and classic literature and Othello has all the makings of powerful, dynamic theater.

De Acha has opted for a straight-ahead approach, wisely focusing on Shakespeare's gorgeous language while keeping the physical production in a traditional Renaissance period setting. This conservative strategy avoids the gimmicks and distractions that can arise from more conceptual stagings, but the reverence and care evident here is not paired with much boldness or invention. This Othello is beautifully produced and well-performed, but it comes across as more solid than soaring.

The story is simple but deep. Othello is a Moorish general hired by the city of Venice to protect its imperial interests in the Mediterranean. When the Turks threaten the Venetian-held island of Cyprus, Othello is tapped to sail there to fight off the invasion. To this, add another crisis. Othello has secretly married Desdemona, the only daughter of a powerful lord, Brabantio. Despite the ensuing scandal of a mixed-race elopement, Othello and Desdemona love each other dearly. Meanwhile, though, Othello's subordinate, Iago, secretly plots Othello's destruction. When Desdemona, Othello, and his army travel to Cyprus, Iago goes along to work on his unsuspecting boss by framing Desdemona as an adulteress.

The question of Iago's motives has long been a subject for scholarly debate. In his many soliloquies (the role is the largest in all of Shakespeare's plays), Iago raises several reasons for his hatred of Othello. First, he claims he's angry for being passed over for a promotion that went to another officer, Cassio. Then, he raises the specter of his own wife's infidelity -- with both Othello and Cassio. Whatever is driving Iago, it probably has to do with sexual jealousy, a problem that drives lots of Shakespeare's plays. Iago relentlessly undermines Othello at every turn, until Othello is driven insane by jealousy.

The production succeeds in delivering the basics. The cast in the main handles the difficult, complex language with clarity, especially James Samuel Randolph in the title role. Randolph, whose rich resonant voice and imposing bulk are a natural fit for the role, wrings the text for all the juices it contains. He's nicely matched with Tara Vodihn as Desdemona, who brings dignity and pathos to the role of a wronged wife. The husband-wife relationship, often overlooked in other productions, is rightfully at the center of this one. As Iago, Carlos Orizondo opts for a rather typical take on Iago, an oily malcontent with a dour demeanor and snarling sardonic delivery. While Orizondo's lithe physicality and pungent humor are entertaining, he and De Acha fall into one of the play's traps: This Iago's so clever and quick, it should be obvious to everyone he's a dangerous man. The whole point of the role is that everyone must plausibly overlook Iago, the dutiful subordinate who secretly seethes. But here, Iago is so clearly a shifty character, everyone else looks pretty stupid to believe anything he says. Deborah L. Sherman plays Iago's wife, Emilia, with strength and clarity of language, but her relationship with Iago seems vague, a critical issue, since whatever is wrong with this marriage prompts Iago throughout the story. Ricky J. Martinez has an unusual take on Iago's cohort Roderigo, playing this normally comedic role with serious intent. This gambit works, forcing Orizondo to dig deeper than had Roderigo been played as a foppish gull. Stephen Neal delivers rock-solid support in the small role of Brabantio.

Production elements are superior, especially Estella Vrankovich's detailed, all-black Renaissance designs and M. Anthony Reimer's brooding, moody music and sound score. But Howard Schumsky's all-white marble set design, though visually appealing, is a staging impediment. The massive central step unit offers size and some vertical variety, but it's largely unusable as a playing area, forcing most of the critical action down center, making the confined New Theatre stage space seem even smaller than it is.

De Acha directs with a fine sense of the play's operatic sweep, hitting the dramatic high points with theatrical flourishes. He's hampered somewhat by the limited cast size. The early senate scene, where the court hears bad news about the Turkish invasion and Othello has a showdown with Brabantio, seems rather wan with only a few actors available. Same with the party scene, celebrating the destruction of the Turks. Despite this, De Acha finds ways to create dramatic size and fury, with a number of memorable sequences. In one, when Iago finally ensnares Othello, they slice their palms and commingle their blood as storm clouds rumble ominously. In another, in the weak glow of a single candle, Desdemona prepares for bed on what will be her final night, as dread and foreboding seize hold of her. Some of the rest of the staging tends toward static stage pictures, but the memorable moments suggest what this company could do with more time, resources, and perhaps more self-confidence. As the company prepares for its second offering, Twelfth Night, this Othello is certain to ripen and mature in subtlety and complexity.