Well, that old spellbinder Ed Stern has worked his magic at the Cincinnati Playhouse again. On opening night more than 200 people watched the 80-minute second act of Othello in pin-drop silence, interrupted only by an occasional mass gasp or an edgy ripple of laughter. That's how tightly constructed the production is.
Artistic Director Stern said in a pre-curtain speech that it's been a 10-year goal of his to bring back the Bard to the Shelterhouse for the first time since a production of Twelfth Night 38 seasons ago. To satisfy this noble ambition he chose one of Shakespeare's noblest tragic heroes — the Moor of Venice, who loves not wisely but too well and whose innate goodness and whose misplaced trust of a traducing "friend" is his tragic flaw.
The fit between play-space and production is apt. The tiny Shelterhouse fosters actor-audience intimacy.
Othello is Shakespeare's most inward-looking, intimate construct. The Oxford Companion describes it as a "claustrophobic tragedy of jealousy and slander" and links it more with the sex-obsessed "comedies" that immediately preceded it (Measure for Measure and All's Well That Ends Well) than with the grand, sweeping tragedies that succeeded it (Macbeth and King Lear).
Othello is unique in the Shakespeare canon for its narrow view. No kings.
No armies. No battles. There are only five major characters. Each is given maximum exposure. Once some palaver about a Turkish invasion of Cyprus is disposed of, the focus narrows to a seething domestic drama not unlike those that Eugene O'Neill would explore three centuries later: Othello, the able, noble general of the Venetian army, loves his beautiful Desdemona past reason. She returns his love in devoted innocence. Iago, passed over for promotion, hates the Moor past reason. Iago deftly plants seeds of doubt about Desdemona's virtue, conveniently implicating Cassio, the man named by Othello to the lieutenancy he (Iago) coveted. Emilia, Iago's much-abused wife, at first connives in her husband's villainy, then turns against him. The entire plot revolves around a handkerchief embroidered with strawberries.
Stern has welded 11 actors into a virtually seamless ensemble. Yes, two characters stand out from the pack, but that is as much a function of the script as of the performances.
Esau Pritchett gives Othello his due gravitas and stature. Sarah Dandridge makes Desdemona the picture of womanly virtue. Anthony Marble is alternately aggrieved and playful as Cassio. Scott Barrow, Joneal Joplin, Jeff Groh, Greg Thornton, Ryan Imhoff and Angela Lin show well in smaller roles.
But Carine Montbertrand and R. Ward Duffy will live in memories of this production. As Emilia, Montbertrand slugs brandy, simmers in watchful silence, then erupts in vengeance when she turns on Iago and falls to his sword. Duffy magnetically embodies one of Shakespeare's most endlessly tantalizing characters — filling the stage with Iago's sibilant, manipulative rage but making no attempt to explain something that the playwright left inexplicable. Is Iago powered by a sincere thirst for revenge? Or is he simply a sociopath in search of the next thrill, willing to risk all, then settling for a self-imposed silence when, at last, he loses? Or does villainy win?
The Othello design team served Stern well. Joseph Tilford set it within a sleek, sophisticated somewhere of mirroring walls and a floor that's part marble, part under-lit glass. Thomas Hase lit some action in shadowy darkness, some in searching sunlight, some in strobe-lit mystery. Costumer Mattie Ullrich made it both contemporary and timeless — dressing the men in gleaming white uniforms and the women in whites and beiges that might have come from Saks. Composer Douglas Lowry underscored it with a militaristic score that's both stirring and threatening. Grade: A
OTHELLO, presented by Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, continues through Oct. 21. See times, buy tickets and find nearby bars and restaurants here.