Othello at the Guthrie Theater

Peter Macon and Stephen Yoakam in Othello.  Photo by Joan Marcus.

Peter Macon and Stephen Yoakam in Othello. Photo by Joan Marcus.

In the dark and affecting Othello (at the Guthrie, through April 20) director Marion McClinton and costumer Esosa dress the Moor (played thrillingly by Peter Macon) in thick leather and stiff boots.  This imparts to him a lumbering, dominating authority.  Add to this the fact that Macon is a large man.  In comparison, the other characters seem feckless and fearful.  (Was I imagining this?  I don’t think so).  Ugly battle-scars criss-cross Othello’s shaven head.  His accent is vaguely foreign – Caribbean?  African?  Watching Macon/Othello descend into jealous rage and epileptic violence is a frightening and disturbing pleasure.  Is he really going to strangle the poor girl, one asks in the famous bedroom scene?  Could he really be so weak, so unbalanced?  We watch, aghast, reveling in the delicious horror.  Macon and McClinton make it possible.

Othello marries (secretly) the high-born Desdemona and one of the enduring mysteries of this great play is: why?  What does Desdemona see in this man?  One wants to say the attraction is physical, but we almost never see this played out; there is a buttoned down formality to their relationship.  When Othello makes his wild accusations, Desdemona tries to reach out, caressing him, kissing his sweat-beaded forehead, but Othello pulls away, rejecting her utterly.  Desdemona is portrayed by the always-terrific Tracey Maloney.  Demure, diminutive, poised, she is a terrific contrast to Othello.

Another of Othello‘s great mysteries: “honest” Iago.  “I hate the Moor,” he avers and Lord knows he must.  Why else would he do Othello such vicious mischief?  But what is the source of his bitterness?  Is he insane?  Does he take pleasure from his nastiness?  In this production, Iago is played by Stephen Yoakam.  His evil seems pathological, almost like a growing tumor.  One half-expects to see him explode.  But this Iago is quite sane and, imo, this diminishes him.  Yoakam is great actor, at the peak of his considerable powers, but I found myself wishing he were having more crazed fun.

It’s the Guthrie, so of course, everyone thrills.  I was especially taken by John Catron who does an unexpectedly goofy take on Cassio.  Kris L. Nelson plays the hapless and malleable Roderigo with great gusto.  Emilia is a problematic character but Regina Marie Williams renders her beautifully.  McClinton directs, as always, with aplomb.

Othello lacks the epic sweep of King Lear, the witchy blood-lust that invigorates Macbeth, the sinuous passion of Hamlet.  The stakes are (relatively) low; certainly we mourn the death of the sweet and innocent Desdemona, and feel the heavy loss of Othello, the gullible Emilia.  But life goes on.  Cassio assumes the post of commander.  Iago is brought to account.  Time is in no way out of joint.

Still, William Shakespeare‘s feverish exploration of sexual jealousy – “the green-eyed monster that mocks the meat it feeds on” – fascinates and frightens.

For more information about John Olive, please visit his (recently updated) website.

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