Satan; so call him now, his former name
Is heard no more in heaven.
— John Milton, Paradise Lost
Dallas — Othello is one of Shakespeare’s treasures, with many depths to plumb. First is the setting for the two parts of the play: Venice and Cyprus, both named after Aphrodite, the god of love who lay with Mars, the god of war, though married to Vulcan. Second is the fact that this is the only Shakespeare play in which a warrior/main character never fights during the play. Third is point that in three important scenes with Iago a character calls for light, a clear repetition and homage to the name Lucifer, which literally translates to “light bringer.”
And though the play is entitled Othello, Iago is the central and most fascinating character. Othello is the military commander, but it is Iago who dictates the action. Moreover, Iago explains things to the audience and draws them in: his motivations, his stratagems and his true character. In performance, it is crucial that Iago gives the other characters enough to work with as they all react to him in both word and action. Also, the actor playing Iago must be able to change tone between his interaction with the other characters and his interaction with the audience. You can’t play the role in the same key.
In Shakespeare Dallas fall season, in a production directed by Mason York, Gregory Lush plays Iago and doesn’t give his fellow actors enough to work with or the audience that crucial change in tone. He is sufficient in his interactions with Roderigo (Jeremiah Johnson) and Cassio (Lee George), but these are simpler characters —they are there to be manipulated by Iago. However, his scenes with Othello (Jamal Sterling) leave his fellow actor struggling to find his way. Sterling doesn’t bring out the full or even brimming psychosis that slowly grips him when Iago plants the seeds of his wife’s infidelity, which we do see clearly in Sterling’s scenes with Desdemona (Caitlin Glass) and her attendant/Iago’s wife Emilia (Joanna Schellenberg).
The passion and tension between Glass and Sterling is palpable. Their final scene together when Othello murders his bride is the highpoint of the evening, especially the fascinating staging that has Othello and Desdemona sitting on the edge of the bed after Othello has made it plain that he intends to kill her. This moment is both tender and intense. How many couples have sat at the edge of their beds late at night and tried to work through a misunderstanding? But the stakes here are not the survival of the relationship or a night on the couch for one of them; it’s death. It’s a smart gambit by director York, not to mention a triumph for fight and intimacy designer Rachel Lee Flesher.
Other notable performances come from Ethan Norris as the Duke, Sakyiwaa Baah as Bianca and Joanna Schellenberg as Emilia. While these are smaller parts, these actors are pitch perfect, hitting just the right notes to complement the other performers and the play overall.
As to the technical aspects of the production, I wonder if the incessant rain we’ve had lately has affected the production. Donna Marquet’s set design is the same basic structure that was used for Shakespeare Dallas’ summer season, but we hardly see any of the layering that was added for the summer shows, especially with respect to lighting. It seems like lighting designer Kenneth Farnsworth has been provided a dimmer switch for a light board. The limited set design forces the scene changes to be explained through props (Cindy Ernst Godinez, properties design), which while adequate isn’t very effective. The sound design by Marco E. Salinas is limited as well; just a few sound effects and some pre-show and intermission music. The costume design by Susan Yanofsky is colorful and vibrant for the women, but mostly dark and simple for the male main characters.
The performance I attended was delayed twice for rain and the stage was no doubt slick. I’m sure this affected the performers and technical staff’s ability to execute the production as planned. But without an Iago that convinces the audience that he is a master manipulator, one who can convincingly draw in the other characters in the play as well as the audience, this Othello is not as fulfilling as it could be.
» Othello continues through Sept. 29 at Samuell-Grand Amphitheatre in Tenison Park in East Dallas; and then runs Oct. 4-14 at Addison Circle Park in Addison.