"Trust No One."
That's the tag line advertising the Othello that opened at Intiman Theatre this week. It happens to sync remarkably well with the stripped-down, pitilessly pithy new production of Shakespeare's tragedy, which is directed by Arin Arbus.
To clarify, Intiman is playing the role of presenter for this Othello. Bartlett Sher — whose tenure as Intiman's artistic director will conclude at the end of next season — was originally scheduled to direct a new homegrown production of the Shakespeare play, but that plan was withdrawn at the eleventh hour. Filling its place is an import from New York's Theatre for a New Audience. It was a surprise Off-Broadway hit this past spring, earning a New York Times rave and stirring up enough demand to be encored in the company's hometown after the initial run. So this is really the third staging of the show in less than half a year, although the three leads playing Othello, Desdemona, and Iago (none of them based in Seattle) are new to the production.
It's a heavily actor-centric production, with emotions up front and center and — however virtuoso in their expression — unyieldingly exposed. Arbus is a gifted young director who (at least in this case) has no interest in imposing self-congratulatory concepts. Her Othello refrains from extracting latter-day morality lessons from the racial, sexual, and religious politics Shakespeare depicts.
In fact, her viewpoint is so closely focused on how these characters relate on a personal level that you get little sense of the larger society in which they are enmeshed. For example, when, near the beginning, Othello (Sean Patrick Thomas) pleads before the Venetian senators for his right to marry Desdemona (Elisabeth Waterston), the hypocrisy of this society that simultaneously insults and needs him seems all too easily eclipsed by the Moor's charming eloquence. Thomas delivers that eloquence with a beautifully resonant voice, which he also uses to thrilling effect to express his rage. But meanwhile, that Venetian hypocrisy hardly registers as a key structural element in the play, one that exerts an relentless undercurrent of pressure on Othello in addition to the jealousy stoked by Iago (John Campion).
This isn't a production that dwells on subtleties, so it's not surprising that it offers no new solutions to one of the play's central dramatic problems: how to show Othello's sudden tipping point from overwhelming love to murderous hatred. That shift seems too easy here. Thomas simply steps over to the other side in his pivotal scene with Iago, with little in the way of gradation. From that point on, it's as if Desdemona has come to symbolize everything that'ês humiliated him. Thomas does bring a powerful mix to the final scene, which becomes a microcosm of the play as he relives the whole spectrum of his feelings for Desdemona, but in a distorted compression.
In in her earlier scenes, Waterston's willowy presence (and vocal delivery) seems too demure for a young woman who has fallen in love with adventure, but her Desdemona gains strength after Othello turns against her, displaying a dramatically effective dignity.
The lovers play out the tragedy, but Othello's real central character is Iago. For such a generally straightforward production, the introduction of a generational divide in the casting of the villain stands out. Campion appears to be as wizened as the other Venetian senators and could even be Othello's (or Desdemona's) father. A veteran British actor, Campion makes a few bewildering choices of his own, such as speaking with a vague but unmistakably foreign accent. At his more blustery, his speech at times verges on incomprehensible — as if perversely illustrating the dilemma Desdemona describes before her husband's wrath: "I understand a fury in your words, but not the words."
Campion borders on campy in his sardonic, Richard III-like asides, even bringing the audience to giggles in advice offered the love-stricken Roderigo (played as a venal bumpkin by Denis Burkus): "drown cats and blind puppies" — this is an actor having fun with the role. Campion's Iago is malicious, to be sure, but instead of metaphysical evil, what motivates him is an unambiguous thirst for vengeance (he emphasizes his suspicion that Othello has seduced his wife, Emilia).
But a lot of what Campion does with the role is fascinating, especially in his keen understanding of Iago's cynicism, which is what the triumph of reason over emotion means for him. Watching his performance, you realize how much of Shakespeare's plot is about plotting: Iago isn't just the emblematic actor able to suit any purpose but a malign creative force who brings the story into being.
In one of Arbus's most effective touches, she shows Iago sprawling, nearly choked to death by Othello as doubt begins to worm through the Moor. The explosion of rage not only foreshadows the play's tragic denouement but generates another level of tension: the game Iago is playing has life-or-death stakes for himself as well.
Stevie Ray Dallimore plays an uncompromising, embittered Brabantio, a father who shuts himself off from Desdemona. As the unknowing pawn Cassio, Lucas Hall is easily spun but always likeable, adding a hint of sexual chemistry with Desdemona, while, as his lover, Elizabeth Meadows Rouse is a flavorful Bianca. One of the production's real strengths is Kate Forbes's richly characterized Emilia. Her realism in the long vigil scene with Desdemona serves as a significant counterweight in the brewing tragedy.
Instead of the pomp and circumstance of Renaissance Venice and its maritime empire, the stage is lean and economical, with a simple but effective unit set by Peter Ksander for the thrust stage: a parquet floor flanked by two (often slammed) doors and a balcony level that isn't even used much (and doubles nicely as a palace or ship when needed). The generally dark lighting palette (Marcus Doshi) is well-suited to this context, almost touching on a film noir sensibility (especially in the shadows of the climactic scene). Miranda Hoffman's costumes are more Puritan than Venetian, which is also in keeping with the down-to-earth aspects of this staging. Even the all-important strawberry-design handkerchief — is there any more overwrought visual in Shakespeare? — seems relatively homespun. With brief, intermittent strokes, Matt O'êHare's sound design (featuring composer Sarah Pickett) evokes a slightly surreal Renaissance montage.