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Court Theatre’s intimate ‘Othello’ drops some text, reveals thoughts with subtext

In the deconstructed Shakespeare production starring Kelvin Roston Jr. and Timothy Edward Kane, some of the best moments are the silent ones.

In “Othello,” the Moorish warrior (Kelvin Roston Jr., left) is brought to jealousy by the scheming of Iago (Timothy Edward Kane).
Michael Brosilow

Two of the most powerful moments in Court Theatre’s svelte, intimate and implosive production of “Othello” occur with the simple portrayal of pensiveness.

The first occurs when Iago (Timothy Edward Kane) plants the seeds of doubt about Desdemona’s (Amanda Drinkall) faithfulness in Othello’s (Kelvin Roston Jr.) head. In Roston’s expert hands, Othello is thrown, not moved yet to suspicion and anger. He stares into space, brow hesitantly furrowed. He’s just … thinking.

The second is an added, silent sequence late in the play, where the characters sit down in a row of seats and do nothing but think and fidget. Small gestures (the movement designer is Erin Kilmurray) indicate the extent to which they are perturbed by their own contemplations. It’s truly, theatrically compelling.

Co-directors Charles Newell and Gabrielle Randle-Bent emphasize the interiority of the main characters, trying to expose their inner thoughts not just by visualizing them, but also by, counterintuitively, taking away some of the original language where they tell us what they think. This effectively transforms lots of text to subtext, which both shortens the play to a 105 intermissionless and fast-moving minutes, and draws us into the “action” of their thoughts.

And that pulling of our attention rather than demanding it finds a physical manifestation in John Culbert’s non-localized set, in which much of the audience (a reduced size of 81 seats) is positioned on swivel chairs on the playing space, pivoting 360 degrees to take in the surrounding sequences. Immersive, but thankfully not overdone. The fixed seats, meanwhile, have been covered in paint-splattered tarp with scaffolding rising above.

The concept is clear. We are in a world under major renovation since we last gathered in enclosed spaces. “Othello” — this production prefers the full title, “The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice” — speaks to many contemporary complexities: to race, to misogyny, and to the prominence of the conspiracy theory.

It’s easy to enter a production of “Othello” right now with trepidation. Do you really want to experience the cringey unpleasantness of watching a white man manipulate a black man to the point that the latter becomes enraged to violence against his wife? For those unfamiliar, Othello is a great Moorish (read: Black) warrior who marries the much-desired Desdemona, to exceeding controversy. Iago, motivated (traditionally, or at least in part) by Othello passing him over for promotion in favor of Cassio (Sheldon D. Brown), plots to undo both by making Othello believe that Cassio has slept with Desdemona. It’s a tragedy, most usually filled with intensely heightened emotion, Othello’s powerful declarations of undying love transformed, via Iago’s deep hate, into explosive jealousy.

This production deconstructs the play a bit, stripping out the more specific social aspects — What are those wars? Who is in charge? — and making Othello extremely thoughtful and sincere. This Othello writes his own, quite touching wedding vows for an added ceremony (and party), one of the more radical changes in a production that falls halfway between traditional and avant-garde. But most importantly, even with the laser focus on the central storyline, Newell and Randle-Bent ask us to analyze before accessing the emotionality, and in doing so address some of the more challenging aspects of Shakespeare’s play.

It’s often hard not to feel that Othello too easily falls for Iago’s provocations. This often comes across as Othello being more prone to an emotional than thoughtful response — that, quite frankly, he isn’t that bright. That certainly isn’t the case here. Roston’s Othello is Iago’s intellectual superior, even while Iago has a better claim on understanding human emotion. Here, Othello resists his jealousy mightily, not prone to believing everything he is told. But even thinking about the possibility is overwhelmingly agonizing. He doesn’t rage in anger. He writhes in uncertainty, which makes him far more sympathetic.

Iago, meanwhile, with many fewer soliloquies, has a streamlined motivation. “I hate the Moor,” he says when he first addresses the audience. Contemporary cues come through, subtly but clearly; with Kane’s short-cropped hair and navy-colored suit, he does come across as cop-ish. But although his racism is blatant, this is not a typical Iago, who revels in the juiciness of his villainy. Kane’s fascinating Iago also seems, beneath the surface, ever in emotional pain, unable to un-feel what he feels to the point that he forces an emotionless exterior.

The supporting characters mostly come across as functional, their depth sacrificed to the cause of “centering” fully on Othello. The exception is Iago’s wife Emilia (the superb Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel), who entertains earlier concerns of conscience, and seems filled with pity throughout for how logic can’t overcome an out-of-control emotion.

Staring at her own husband, she takes in what we all must: the full, ruinous havoc that a single prominent, trusted liar can cause, even to the best of us.