Productions of Shakespeare come in all shapes and sizes, and in both traditional and revisionist formats. For its very first encounter with the Bard, the Gift Theatre has devised a streamlined, contemporary, cut-to-the-chase “Othello.” Director Jonathan Berry has approached the play almost as if he were making an indie film, using tight close-ups on the principal characters, who are set against the most minimalist backdrop. And it turns out to be a most effective choice for this finely tuned Jefferson Park storefront where the actors, separated from the 40-seat audience by barely a few inches, have clearly steeped themselves in the text.
“Othello” is a play full of mind games and chicanery, with career rivalries, racial tensions and sexual jealousy the primary ingredients in a toxic cocktail that proves fatal to all its principal characters. These include the Moorish general of the title (played with compressed rage by Kareem Bandealy, whose egg-smooth head, elegant ramrod-straight posture and bantamweight form suggest a tightly wound, military-bred man). Though held in high esteem by the Venetians for having led their army to victory, he remains an “outsider,” and he is loathed by his third-in-command, Iago (the alternately restrained and volcanic Michael Patrick Thornton, whose real-life use of a wheelchair now suggests a battlefront injury), a bitter, psychopathically manipulative man whose sick understanding of what makes men tick becomes a weapon of mass destruction.
In collaboration with his actors, Berry (tackling his first Shakespeare production on the heels of a bravura revival of “Look Back in Anger” at Redtwist Theatre) makes the string-pulling clear, vivid and unstoppable, although those unfamiliar with the story might want to brush up a bit before arriving for the fireworks.
The Moor also has ruffled feathers by secretly marrying Desdemona, the daughter of a Venetian senator (Brittany Burch, suggesting an adoring yet self-possessed young woman), who was enchanted by his worldly experience. But it is Iago — who cannot forgive Othello for selecting the young and effusive Cassio (Jay Worthington, ideally feverish and lost), rather than him, to be his second in command — who is the tragic tale’s twisted engine. And he gradually pumps Othello so full of false hints that Desdemona is having an affair with Cassio — who, in fact, is being pursued by the courtesan Bianca (sensual Sara Bues) — that the Moor’s love turns to homicidal jealousy. In the process, Iago’s love-starved wife (and Desdemona’s confidante), Emilia (a beautifully controlled Darci Nalepa), becomes a tool in her husband’s machinations.
To switch scenes from Venice, to the sea, to Cyprus, Berry uses nothing but designer Dan Stratton’s six narrow white panels that are realigned to the driving beat of North African music. The real drama is rooted entirely in the actors’ ferocious but colloquial speech (more than once these actors made me hear certain lines with a newfound clarity) and in several moments of intense physicality, including a truly horrific murder scene.
At moments Bandealy’s speech becomes muffled, and while Burch is a strong actress, her scratchy voice would benefit from vocal coaching. But overall this is a tight, smart, cohesive rendering of a play that moves with a terrible inevitability.
Note: From Aug. 14-24, Gabriel Franken (now playing Roderigo, a dissipated Venetian) will take over for Thornton in the role of Iago.