Dallas — Iago is the most important piece to try to understand Shakespeare’s Othello, a character that scholars and actors have spent centuries trying to figure out. This makes it the most sought-after part as it allows actors to engage in a range of emotions on the stage, and varied approaches work. Considering that the actors are teenagers in director Lydia Mackay’s Junior Players production in Shakespeare Dallas’ summer home, this tough material feels especially admirable.
Jeremy LeBlanc plays Iago with a tangible intensity, one befitting the setting: not Cyprus as the backdrop, but rather Vietnam during the U.S. war. His Iago is like an overpowering but able conductor, demanding the strings to come in on queue and furiously waving his baton at the woodwinds. Though Othello is the commanding general, there’s no mistake that Iago is the one in charge. Again, impressive for someone LeBlanc’s age.
The interplay between Iago and the other characters gives us some idea of his tangled motivations. Is it that Iago is jealous of Cassio for being selected as Othello’s lieutenant instead of himself? David Allen Norton, playing Cassio, as the “squared away soldier” archetype, pulls off his role in this relationship.
And is Iago satisfied with just pushing Cassio to the side or is his aim higher? In his first soliloquy, he states plainly “I hate the Moor,” and the reason he gives this time is that rumor has it Othello has slept with Iago’s wife Emilia, played by Madeline Norton. Norton’s presence and pitch is excellent. Her interactions with Iago show a strong character and give away nothing that could be used against her (whether because of her character’s innocence or because of her strength, we do not know).
As to the pushing aside of Cassio, Roderigo is his main instrument. A gullible and lovestruck fool, he has sold his lands and given jewels and gifts to Iago to present to Desdemona as testaments of his affection (that Iago keeps for himself). Roderigo is played by Dhruv Iyengar and feeds on LeBlanc’s intensity and Iago’s manipulation superbly. He shows the emotional torments with both delicacy and fervor.
And last of Iago’s instruments is Othello, played by Emir Price. For a young actor to play a commanding general, a cultural outsider who’s made his way into a foreign society, and a devoted husband turned jealous lover is an ambitious endeavor. But Prince’s deportment is splendid. Watching his Othello slowly unravel through Iago’s actions after marrying his love, gaining his commission to lead the fight against the North Vietnamese and succeeding, and then watching his world fall apart through jealously implanted by Iago is wonderful.
Prince’s interactions with Desdemona, played by Savannah Youngblood are very well done. Here we see in Youngblood another young actor with a powerful presence and an impeccable ability to listen to and harmonize with her fellow actors. Also worth noting is her fine execution of the Willow song in Act IV.
Here we must make a brief mention of the other elements of the play, musical and otherwise The setting, as mentioned above, is the Vietnam war. Throughout the play, the interludes are filled with classic rock songs from bands such as The Rolling Stones and The Who, as well as impressive psychedelic patterns employed by lighting designer Analise Caudle. These brief moments provide the right tension and reminders of the backdrop throughout. One wonders though, with Youngblood’s excellent singing voice, why a Carole King or Joni Mitchell-style wasn’t used for the Willow song, but rather the oft-used “simple lover’s lament” style that you would see in Branagh’s 1995 film of Othello, sung by Irène Jacob.
The costumes complement the scene as well, with the soldiers in period camouflage fatigues with various riffs that denote their adherence to uniform regulations—Iago’s being the most flagrantly nonchalant. The women wear various 1960’s styles, from flowing skirts and headbands to miniskirts and go-go boots.
Another critique of the production is the sound issues with the actors microphones. Outdoor amphitheater style theater is terribly tricky, and a certain amount of leeway is called for if a mic cuts in a little early or late. But the microphone issues, whether from opening night hiccups or technical glitches, detracted from the performance.
The last negative that can be dredged up (as there are very few) is the barebones scenery. While the slight changes in the script, the costumes, the lighting, music and an interesting opening scene of a war protest help to put us in mind of the Vietnam War, one wonders why some simple camouflage netting wasn’t used to dress up the stage a bit.
To close, let’s look at a single line from one of Iago’s soliloquy: “And what's he then that says I play the villain?” One can take this as a call to the audience to examine Iago closely. Is he trying to lead us astray as he’s led the other characters? Yet the simple Brabantio, Desdemona’s father, doesn’t fall for his ploys. So how strong are Shakespeare’s main characters that can be manipulated so swiftly by Iago? The phrase “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing” often attributed to Edmund Burke, gives us some idea of the action of the play when it is boiled down.
While these young actors' performances are textured, Iago is the conductor and the other characters his instruments, and the “good men” don’t do enough to stop him.
But what does Iago truly want and do any of these manipulations make him happy? The answers are still vague. Obviously his initial plan to usurp Cassio and revenge Othello doesn’t succeed as planned. But we’re still not sure about Iago in the end, and he’s not going to help us. His last lines give away nothing and everything: “Demand me nothing: what you know, you know: From this time forth I never will speak word.” He will not react to his instruments revolting and gaining power. One imagines that even with the torture that the nobles intend, Iago will remain silent—his last act to maintain a position of power.