By John Quinn
There are those among you that feel some plays are so well known they need no introduction. Most of us, though, have less than passing acquaintance with William Shakespeare’s 1603 tragedy “Othello.” The MFAs can skip merrily ahead; the rest of you, follow me.
Although he is foreign born, General Othello is the military hero of Venice. Bowing to political pressure, he appoints as his second in command Michael Cassio, who is, as far as active duty is concerned, still wet behind the ears. This promotion passes over the more experienced Iago, who wrathfully plots the ruination of Cassio – the better to use him as a weapon against Othello. The chink in the general’s armor is Desdemona, the impressionable young daughter of a prominent Venetian. They’ve eloped. In breaking the commandment “Honor thy father,” Desdemona unwittingly begins a pathway of deception that Iago joyously employs to further his revenge.
In writing a forward to the Hilberry Theatre’s production, Katherine Skoretz observes, “When asked what ‘Othello’ is about, many give the informed responses of jealousy or betrayal. But at a deeper look, the issue again and again is trust.” Blair Anderson’s direction is spot-on in illustrating this theme. Everyone trusts Iago; Iago trusts no one. Anderson’s audience is increasingly attuned to the villain’s deceptions, reacting with sympathetic murmurs when one clueless character after another refers to Iago as “honest.”
Scenic designer Leazah Behrens and costumer Clare Hungate-Hawk have highly complementary, conceptual designs that designate no particular time or place. The set is a bi-level construct of white, open cubes; the costume colors range from soft grey to black, with occasional sparks of vibrancy. The effect is restrained and subdued. That description, for better or worse, can apply to the performances, too.
I may be looking for too much, “For I am nothing, if not critical.” “Othello” is a script driven by unbridled emotions and the emotions here are played pretty close to the vest. Edmund Alyn Jones approaches the title role with all the swagger of a military hero, but his vibrant moments are not in Othello’s wrath, but in his introspective soliloquies. Desdemona is a perplexing character, impetuous and naive enough to elope yet sophisticated enough to hold her own in racy word play with Iago. That contrast is not resolved here, but Megan Dobbertin finds the essence of her character in a beautifully crafted scene with her confidant (and Iago’s wife), Emilia, played by Danielle Cochrane. Desdemona prepares for bed, not knowing it is for the last time.
Alec Barbour faces the unenviable task of fleshing out what is arguably Shakespeare’s most enigmatic character, Iago. What does one make of a man who claims, “I am not what I am?” Commentators have taken from that line and another, as Iago addresses us directly, “And what’s he then that says I play the villain?” That, in this greatest of morality plays, Iago is the earthly embodiment of Satan. That’s something of a stretch, but Barbour’s Iago maintains a steely self-assurance and control from start to finish when textually the villain takes increasing delight with his villainy. The Renaissance priest might attribute that to the corrupting effects of mortal sin; the modern psychologist might tag Iago as a sociopath. Barbour goes out of his way (or at least down stage center) to let us know what he’s up to in a series of soliloquies. Iago is self-congratulatory, but he doesn’t seem to be having any fun.
By and large, the Hilberry’s “Othello” is cogent and accessible, making it a fair introduction to William Shakespeare. In fact, it’s a tribute to director and cast that a 21st-century audience is so attuned to the Bard’s early 17th-century allusions and metaphors.
Hilberry Theatre, 4743 Cass Ave., Detroit. Plays in rotating repertory through Jan. 17, 2013. 150 minutes. $12-30. 313-577-2972. http://www.Hilberry.com