Betrayal as only Shakespeare can do it

By By Lisa Anderson

By Lisa Anderson

Pioneer Theatre Company’s “Othello” is a polished, tight rendition of one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies.

A masterwork of jealousy, racism and misplaced trust, “Othello” tells the story of an older black man-a general-who elopes with Desdemona, a blond-haired, fair-skinned young woman. They are full of love, hope and tenderness, but the seething hatred of Othello’s ensign, Iago, soon bursts the idyllic bubble in which they live.

Director Gavin Cameron-Webb chose to set this play in the late 19th century because the political climate of that time worked so well with the story and he felt that modern audiences would more easily relate to it.

While era costumes can be distracting, costume designer David Kay Mickelsen provides such beautiful fabrics and well-tailored suits that, by the time your ear adjusts to iambic pentameter, your eyes will happily accept the setting.

The most domestic of Shakespeare’s tragedies, “Othello” is an extremely intimate play, and because of that, Cameron-Webb said, it is all the more close to us.

Peter Harrison, designing his 23rd set for PTC, offers a Cyprus military post that feels so real, you may catch yourself sniffing for evidence of salt water. From the intermittent winds waving the flag to the ever-shifting tones of the sky to the battered stone building, the set feels authentic.

Othello is played by Jonathan Earl Peck, whose gravelly bass voice is the perfect symbol of power and charm. Othello’s obvious and admirable strength is so quickly diminished by his misplaced trust that it makes your head spin. Watching him believe Iago’s lies is like watching a train wreck-his blissful marriage is shattered and his imperturbable nature is discarded like a coat on a hot day. We feel as helpless as Desdemona, knowing she is innocent and wishing for intervention, which only comes when it is too late.

There is a fabulous sword fight that is born out of a barroom brawl, purposely ignited by Iago-the grand instigator of the story. The choreography felt natural, as it should have. Choreographer Dale Anthony Girard is an award-winning fight director, choreographer and author of the critically acclaimed stage combat manual, Actors On Guard.

The dashing R. Ward Duffy plays the darling villain, Iago. He is our connection to the action, the eyes through which we view all. He nearly endears himself to us with his quick wit and his smooth lies, as all the while he is touted by Othello as “honest Iago.” He is a mystery meant to be left unsolved, and as Duffy said, “there is a clarity in that.”

Being set in an insular world makes it easier for Iago to do what he does. The players are in Cyprus, guarding foreigners against an invasion. Duffy felt that Iago makes the choices he does because he is who he is and anything else would be boredom, which would in turn be death. It is his lifeblood. Somehow, his hate for Othello turns into obsession, taking him over and sucking us all into a dark place with him.