The title is “Othello,” but the show belongs to Iago, that vexing Shakespeare villain whose name has become synonymous with fomenting deceit and jealousy. Or at least that’s the case in the brisk new production of “Othello” mounted by the Woodward Shakespeare Festival.
In this promising but flawed production, directed so swiftly and decisively by J.J. Cobb that at times it seemed abrupt, the character of Iago prompted a visceral response from the audience. At one point I thought that the woman sitting in front of me might have to be restrained from rushing the stage and slapping him.
It’s a juicy role for Miles Villanueva, a Fresno State actor who’s been much seen recently on the university’s stage. Youthful and swaggering, he plays Iago with hint of a smirk and a sullen sexuality. He’s a bit of a thug: perhaps not the smartest guy in the room in a big-picture sense but perfectly competent at wreaking havoc. You could see him in the present day being a corporate raider or organized-crime lieutenant. When he begins spelling out his grand plan to ruin his boss, Othello, by manipulating him into thinking that his wife, Desdemona, has been unfaithful, you’re caught up in the audacity of it all.
Cobb, a Fresno State theater graduate who has gone on to compile a national resume of directing outdoor theater, knows the perils and possibilities of performing under the stars, and she works hard to keep the audience engaged. Iago literally bounds onto the stage to start the action — a zippy beginning that sets the tone for the evening. The pace of the show never lags, and with the exception of the climactic scene, the energy level remains combustible.
The steps that Iago take to stoke his boss’ jealousy are almost ridiculously simple if they weren’t so effective. With the smitten Desdemona (Danielle Jorn) married to Othello (James Taylor), the dark-skinned Moor greatly in favor with the Venetian court because of his military prowess, the stage is set for Iago’s machinations.
Cobb sets the production in 1558, so it has something of a timeless classic feel. Chris Campbell and Michael Peterson’s functional set has clean, traditional lines. Debora Bolen’s beautifully color-coordinated costumes, lightweight and sleekly cut, evoke perhaps a bit more of a modern sensibility than the set — I kept thinking that Iago’s spiffy blue vest looked like something you could pick up in Gore-Tex at REI — but still ground the production in a particular time and place. This is a good call, considering the specificity of Shakespeare’s plot, particularly the ethnic storyline.
Cobb’s one big directorial flourish comes in the form of the famed (and some would say magical) handkerchief that Iago uses to stoke Othello’s jealousy. The actors mime the prop, which Shakespeare describes as spotted with strawberries. On one hand, I can see why Cobb wanted to elevate this important symbol in the play to metaphorical status. (Can something as intangible and evanescent as love be depicted in concrete terms?) But in an otherwise realistic production, this directorial conceit sticks out as too heavy-handed.
The festival’s new slip-stage, which allows scenery to be slid into place, is a nice touch. But it does have the effect of forcing key scenes to be played far away from the audience. This has a particular impact on the climactic deathbed scene, which seemed a little detached and uninvolved compared to the rest of the play. Just as things should be heating up to uncontrollable explosiveness, we lose some of the impact.
Much of the cast are Fresno State theater students, which gives the production a youthful feel. Perhaps a little too youthful in some cases.
As Othello, Taylor struggles at times with the bigness of his character, never convincing us fully either of his charismatic ability to lead great armies nor of his tremendous, festering capacity for jealous anger. Brandon Lindner is more successful as the jovial Cassio, infusing him with a bouncy, party-boy mentality, but needs to work on his diction and connecting with his character’s sturdier underpinnings.
Hal Bolen, as Desdemona’s father, has some nice blustery moments.
Jorn, as Desdemona, is a stately and forceful presence on stage. (When her character finally figures out her fate, it’s wrenching.) I was particularly impressed with Jacque Babb as the pivotal Emilia, wife of Iago, whose amazingly complex hand in Othello’s downfall is tempered with a strong, fierce feminist stance that acknowledges women as potent sexual beings. (Her “Have we not affections?” speech is the strongest in the production.)
And then there’s Villanueva, whose Iago paces like a confident cat, one hand clenched behind his back lingering on his sheathed dagger. At times his monologues are a little too pat — a little too smirky, with blinding smiles interrupting the smarminess — but his is a character built to provoke. When Cassio says, “Good night, honest Iago,” you’re supposed to blanch.
And we did.