It takes real cojones for a theater of any size to tackle Shakespeare. And when an outfit as small as Main Street Theater decides to stage Othello, it's hard not to be amazed at the outright audacity of the choice. Elizabethan tragedy is huge, hyperbolic, emotionally wild. Storms rage, wars erupt and most everyone, good and evil, dies in the end.
And then there's the language: the rhythmic, richly metaphoric and enormously difficult speeches and turns of phrase that make actors shake in their collective shoes when faced with a page of the great bard's dialogue.
Indeed most theaters turn yellow-hearted at the mere mention of Shakespeare, finding his stunning language too unforgiving, his emotional landscapes too wide in scope to attempt.
Thank goodness for plucky little Main Street Theater. Under the direction of Bill Burford, they've put together a well made and often passionate production of this play about prejudice, jealousy and power.
For those who slept through sophomore lit class, Othello is the tragic tale of a Moorish general who marries a Venetian senator's daughter. He's black. She's white. And there starts the trouble. Othello (Matthew Stanford) starts out as a good man who genuinely loves his bride, Desdemona (Kelli Cousins). But they must elope to marry. Desdemona's father wanted her to marry the idiot fop Roderigo (Jason Douglas) than "run ... to the sooty bosom" of Othello.
But they are in love, or so it seems. And very married. And to Othello's face everyone else (i.e., all the white people) is gracious and happy for the lovers. Behind his back though, a lot of name-calling goes on. He's "an old black ram" and "thick lips." He's a black man in power. The weak white men in power can't stand this fact. And Iago (Joel Sandel), Shakespeare's most snake-spined badass, can't stand it.
Being the abject coward that he is, Iago weasels his way into Othello's good will and cuts right down to the heart of the general's weakness.
Shakespeare insinuates that Othello, whose demise happens when he allows himself to be ruled by passion rather than reason, is more primal, more animal-like than his white counterparts. Othello isn't cunning, duplicitous and despicable like Iago; in fact, there is something noble in his nature. In the end, however, he is nothing more than Iago's fool, a man who would have saved himself a whole lot of misery if he hadn't been so ridiculously hot-headed. He becomes cruel and crude, a wife-beater whose actions are all but inexplicable.
In this age in America, it's hard to see Othello without considering the racist implications in some of the lines. For Othello -- like most old plays about race -- contains language and observations that aren't altogether palatable to contemporary audiences. It's a conundrum worthy of interesting, even heated after-theater conversation.
Stanford's Othello will make the discussion even better. His Moor is a Yul Brenner-like nobleman. Stiff and gruff, with his head shaved and his ear pierced, he all but struts around the stage in his black boots, yelling commands and questions in a well-deep voice that resonates throughout the theater. At times, though, I couldn't help wishing he would let go, loosen up, become more fully this man who eventually strangles his wife in a jealous rage. He is, after all, the man who "loved not wisely, but too well."
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The center of this play is not Othello but Iago. Shakespeare loved his villains, giving them all the great lines and wicked jokes. And Iago is one of his best. He's so mean he can't even do his own killing; he gets the idiots around him to do his nasty bidding. Sandel seems to be made to play the bad guy. He's risen to the rather formidable challenge of Iago and gives one of his best performances in over a year. His Iago is funny in an icky sort of way, as pinched in the heart as any Grinch. He's a man who was born for bad-hair days with his scalp drenched in goo and his hair combed forward in pointy spikes. He's intelligent and funny and bad to the very marrow of his bones.
Another terrific performance comes from Nathalie Cunningham as Emilia, Iago's wife. Again, one can't help but be struck with the intelligence of a performance that brings so many nuances to such difficult lines. Also strong are Mark Roberts as Cassio and Emily Carter as Bianca, his lover in the slatternly red dress.
Shakespeare is a bold, double-dare-you kind of choice for any company. Main Street's fine job -- in such a small space and with local actors -- ought to inspire more theaters to give the old bard a whirl.
Othello runs through February 28 at Main Street Theater, 4617 Montrose. (713)524-6706. $13-$18.