If Shakespeare's plays tend to make your eyes roll around in their sockets, with all the characters and subplots to track, there's one great script that's as simple and focused as an episode of Leave It to Beaver, albeit with a lot more dead bodies.
In Othello, old Will targeted a fairly common domestic tragedy, chucking aside any larger issues and even throwing overboard his favored clowns, the goofs who offer comic relief in other works. But the piece is no less involving, and this production by the Ohio Shakespeare Festival, at Akron's Stan Hywet Hall, will keep you nailed to your seat for the full two and a half hours.
Like any hubby who spends a lot of time away from the homestead, Othello, a Moor warrior, is subject to dark thoughts about the behavior of his sweetheart, Desdemona. Adding to the tension is that theirs is an interracial marriage -- a fact that is muttered by Othello's right-hand man, Iago, as well as others.
A little ball of hate -- and perhaps Shakespeare's most fascinating villain -- Iago plots to destroy both Othello and Cassio, the captain whom Othello promoted to lieutenant over Iago. With no other story lines to confuse things, we are left with Iago's nefarious schemes as he cleverly positions everyone, including Desie's wannabe boyfriend, Roderigo, for the perfect shit-storm to come.
This production shines due to pristine performances in the two lead roles. As Othello, Andy Nagraj is physically compelling, and he has all the vocal power to command an army, not to mention a stage. As he slips into his lethal jealous rage, with Iago whispering of Desdemona's supposed trysts with Cassio, Nagraj's ferocious glares could flash-freeze a box of kernel corn at 40 yards.
He is matched by the sweet innocence of Lisa Marie Schueller as Desdemona, a faithful wife who protests her purity to no avail. She shows how her simple faith in her husband is trampled once jealousy takes hold of him, even as Iago purports to warn his master against such destructive feelings: "O, beware, my lord, of jealousy! It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on."
Director Terry Burgler pulls rather amazing double duty as both director and Iago -- a challenging task, since his character is on stage virtually the whole time. Burgler the director does his job superbly, helping his players shape their speeches for maximum understandability and impact. But his Iago is a bit too chummy, so offhandedly casual that it's hard to sense the malice at Iago's core. A number of fluffed lines and jumped cues don't help.
But for the most part, the supporting cast is strong, with likable Andrew Cruse portraying the honorable Cassio, and Deric McNish whining and trembling as gullible Roderigo. Even without a classic Iago, this Othello explores the tragedy of distrust with penetrating clarity and never releases its death-grip on the audience.