Veteran Alley actor James Black slips so completely under the skin of Shakespeare's most malignant knave, he might as well be slathered in K-Y. The role of blackhearted Iago in the Bard's mighty Othello is Black's career capstone, a magnificent portrait of immoral evil. "Spartan dog" Iago is the consummate actor, and Black's heady theatricality is the perfect fit with the character. Whispering lies, he oozes fake sincerity; planning murder, he chortles at the ease of his command over "dupes" and "gulls." His voice rasps, gently envelops or cracks with electricity.
What makes Iago so fascinating is the sheer joy he exudes with such bad-ass attitude. Sly, sexy and dangerous, he impresses himself. He invents new schemes and changes tactics when the opportunity presents itself, improvising while he stage-manages the other characters as he conspires to destroy Venice's beloved war hero. Sly and astute as a dramatist, Shakespeare never gives Iago a concise motive for falsely convincing Othello that his new wife has been untrue, but hints at many: Iago's jealous that Othello has promoted untested Cassio; he thinks Othello has cuckolded him by sleeping with his wife Emilia; or maybe Iago, too, is in love with Othello's chaste wife Desdemona. Othello's a play so steeped in sex, so redolent with bawdy undercurrents, it's also possible to read Iago's motives as those of a spurned, jealous lover — he wants Othello, and if he can't have him, nobody can. By being so deliberately imprecise, Shakespeare turns Iago's amoral manipulations even more terrifying. If someone so great a figure as Othello can fall so far because of misplaced jealousy, what everyday perils befall us?
It's too bad Black doesn't have a more worthy opponent to play against. Sadly, David Rainey's Othello is neither great warrior nor great lover. Othello must command the stage, first as Venice's "valiant" commander-in-chief whom the Senate implores to defend Cyprus against the Turks, then as ardent suitor and husband, who, before the play has begun, has wooed and won the young, impassioned Desdemona. She has "run...to [his] sooty bosom" because of his war exploits and his noble quality. Outsider and former pagan in Venice's European (i.e., white) society, he has won the prize. But Rainey shows no overwhelming prowess in winning much of anything. Neither battle-scarred nor overly amorous, he sounds whiny when he should be passionate, which throws Shakespeare's vise-like plot out of joint. Othello's quick change from doting lover to raging murderer ("I'll tear her to pieces!") is never an easy transformation for any actor, but the more powerful and potent an Othello, the more we'll believe it. With Rainey, who's distinguished, certainly, but detached emotionally, we follow and watch, but aren't moved.
Alley Theatre, 615 Texas, 713-228-8421.
Through March 30. $21-$71.
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Director Scott Schwartz has no qualms about moving us. He slaps us awake right at the start with a grungy, industrial look as Iago plunges a shiv into a lightbulb — sparks fly, spooky electronic sound effects echo and Roderigo viciously kicks a metal box across the stage. It's Schwatz's punk homage to Elizabethan staging: no sets, plush costumes. Walt Spangler's nihilistic Euro-trash design doesn't greatly illuminate Othello, but it doesn't offend or get in the way, either. Wardrobe cases, searchlights, plastic sheeting and metal scaffolding are effectively used to set Shakespeare's ever more claustrophobic mood. Impressionistically rearranged, they place us wharfside on Cyprus with distant sails in the background, or transport us in an eye blink to Othello's garden with chaise lounges and pitchers of sangria. The only set that's comically out of whack is the unhappy couple's chandelier-bedecked bedchamber that rises into view like some Elton John pleasure grotto. Alejo Vietti's Grand Canal-via-Folsom Street-inspired costumes are a visual treat of leather, straps, eyelets and laces. David Lander's lighting, forever highlighting Iago whenever he soliloquizes, becomes tiring — dramatic, but unnecessary.
To its credit, the Alley's able cast "speaks the speech...trippingly on the tongue," as if Shakespearean cadence, fluency and comprehension are second nature. The two Elizabeths — Bunch and Heflin, as Desdemona and Emilia — are exemplary. Desdemona, bucking her father and society by eloping with the Moor, is liberated well before her time. Bunch gives her fresh, feisty charm, elegant composure and, later, when her fate is sealed, haunting sympathy. With Bunch, you immediately comprehend why Othello is so bewitched by her.
There are no stars in the eyes of Iago's wife, Emilia. World-weary, she knows full well man's bestial nature. Her vulgar view of the sexes — "They are all but stomachs, and we are all but food...and when they are full they belch us" — draws knowing gasps from the audience. Heflin's gritty take on this abused, unloved woman is knowingly sad and beautifully played. Stupid and horny Roderigo, who pants for Desdemona, is smartly portrayed by Todd Waite; handsome, guileless Cassio is the athletic Brandon Hearnsberger; and betrayed, bigoted Brabantio, Desdemona's father, is heartbreakingly limned by James Belcher.
Though the lack of a true dramatic hero ultimately blunts the play, James Black's picture of titanic wickedness will puncture your heart.