It’s been a long time since I’ve sat in an audience and squirmed as uncomfortably as I did while the menacing violence unfolds in the Folger’s production of Shakespeare’s Othello. The race and relationship tragedy, running through December 4, left me despairing over the damnable and downright creepy Iago, played cunningly by Ian Merril Peakes, and twitching at the creepiness of on-stage murder as Desdemona met her end at the hands of jealousy-crazed Othello, played by the masterful Owiso Odera.
The intimate setting of the Folger’s Elizabethan Theatre suits the intimate tragedy well and much of the drama unfolds in the central isle. The billowing sails and the sensual Cyprian residential set places viewers in the company of these Venetian characters as their stories unfold, set in the time of the 13th Century Christian Crusades. Scenes set in the monolithic marriage bed leave the viewer to embrace voyeurism, and actresses Janie Brookshire, the dewy lark-voiced Desdemona, and Karen Peakes, as Iago’s wife Emilia, use it deftly to build the anxiety and tension as the murder unfolds and its discovery plays out.
Past presentations of Othello have left me with a distinct distaste about the implied and overt racism and societal discomfort in class-intermarriage of the story. While those themes are certainly present in this production, cunning, evil and madness stand out as the major take-aways for viewers to chew on in director Robert Richmond’s telling of the tale. Sitting in the middle of the theatre, I wasn’t sure so sure sound designer Matthew M. Nielson got the volume and echos right, but the eerie tones and emotional acoustics build the sense of Othello’s mental unsteadiness and ultimate plunge into insanity. At treacherous Iago’s hand, the ‘green eyed monster’ consumes the Moor as the audience teeters to the din of anxiety-provoking music and sound and the glint of waving swords and daggers.
To enrich your viewing pleasure, plan to buy tickets to the show next Wednesday, November 3. Folger Shakespeare Library Director Michael Witmore will lead a discussion about the play. On November 10, audience-members can meet the cast at a post-show talk.