By Tristan Lejeune
The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s current production of Othello gets better and better as it goes along, which is impressive for any play and a bloody relief for one that clocks in over three hours.
The action of The Moor of Venice goes increasingly from the public sphere to the private one — it starts in the street, proceeds to government chambers, and ends in the bedroom — so it’s a testament to the intimacy of the performances that the show steadily improves. But what really helps is easing off the gas on the “atmosphere.”
When Iago (Jonno Roberts) and Roderigo (Ben Diskant) met in the dead of Venetian night, one of my first thoughts was “Oh no,” as STC’s production pressed heavy on the lights and sound. Roberts does better, and looks more comfortable, in natural light. His is one of those subtle takes on Shakespeare’s most famous villain — no mustache-twirler he — that shines brighter when it’s not competing with special effects.
Put another way: it’s the Bard’s fault that Iago ends so many scenes monologing his evil plans, but someone else’s entirely that three or four of the times he does here, we go to horror movie lighting and ominous sound effects. Roberts is so wonderfully restrained he sutures the audience right into those schemes, though just a scooch more wicked glee could be good; he spends good deals of time at military attention: perhaps a small smile?
Less interested in relatability is Faran Tahir’s Othello. Can you imagine a wife-murderer’s trial where the defense was “But your honor, I was falsely convinced she was cheating on me!” Sympathy being damned, Tahir relishes the general’s bluster and tempers, his sweaty rage and jealousy. Director Ron Daniels tries to keep things “topical” with Islamic undertones and plenty of empty oil barrells rolling around, but having Othello pray to the audience as if we were Mecca is more trouble than it’s worth.
We come for these two men, but stay for their women: Merritt Janson’s Emilia and Ryman Sneed’s Desdemona are both scene-stealers, so their time together on the stage is some of Othello’s strongest. They are funny and touching enough that you wish there was more of them.
Like I said: it gets better as it goes, so by the end, our messy climax is positively enthralling. They haven’t quite nailed Desdemona’s death (note to William: smothering victims don’t get last words), but if Sneed and Tahir were to maintain physical contact more leading upto that horrible moment, the emotional beats would find themselves more. After that, though, you could hear a pin drop in Sidney Harman Hall.
A 400-plus-year-old tragedy that deals predominantly with race won’t age perfectly, but there’s no dust on STC’s production.