A Riveting production of “Othello” Opens at Intiman

When Intiman Theatre added Shakespeare’s great drama “Othello” a year ago to its 2009 season, Bartlett Sher, the company’s artistic director was scheduled to direct it. Then, his new life in New York began to take precedence and another production was announced in its place. First produced in New York in February by the Theatre for a New Audience, the “new” Othello made its Seattle debut this week.

This is a stripped-down version of the Renaissance play, with barely a set and few props. Costumes, carefully considered and designed, could be anywhere at anytime, almost. At that, the visual aspects are remarkably handsome. There are several levels but most of the action takes place on the main floor which has as its centerpiece a mottled appearance that is striking by itself. As time and circumstances dictate, furniture — a table, chairs, lamps and inevitably a bed for the last scene — are brought in to do duty For all of its austerity and avoidance of period luxury, the production is stylish.

Very little is wasted, which has to have been stage director’s Arin Arbus’s intention. The action moves forward quickly and decisively, sometimes, it would seem, the actors rushing to keep the momentum on track toward its denouement. Of course, there is a lot of space to cover, not only in terms of narrative progression but real space. Actually this is more than suggested by the playwright. Exposition is dealt with decisively, and little is savored in a languid fashion. The familiar words tumble out, sometimes too much so. Diction is not always as good as might be, and words don’t get across the footlights. It takes great skill to manage Shakespeare’s verse with any degree of thoughtfulness, even more so to articulate it well.

There is much to admire in Arbus’ staging, primarily its clarity, decisiveness, intelligence. She has a strong conception of what she wants to accomplish and how to get there. However, she takes an unusual turn by turning Iago into an outsider like Othello. Where Othello is outside Venetian society because of his ethnic background, Iago is an outsider because he is not Venetian. We don’t know his origins — obviously European –because, of course, it is not in the text. Arbus makes the point by giving him a vague accent. One doesn’t always hear it, but it is there and puts him in the same situation as Othello. Iago’s much younger wife, Emilia, has no accent. One sees Iago in many ways. With Arbus, he is aging, sniveling, obsequious. Even though we, who sit on the other side of lights, see everything about him as poison, it is not hard to understand why no one else is as perceptive.

Because John Campion is so deft in his portrayal of Iago, he becomes the center of the tragedy. It is he who captures our attention, relegating Othello to second-class status. Sean Patrick Thomas is physically persuasive but not so much as the title character. In many ways the motivation of the central actors can be difficult to understand but with Iago one doesn’t feel the need. He just is, which gives him enormous power. One feels Campion’s experience not only on stage as a Shakespearean actor but in life.

The rest of the cast falls into their assigned roles. Elisabeth Waterston, who plays Desdemona with cool simplicity, looks as if she stepped out of a Renaissance painting, even without any period costumes, just a long dress.

The character is troubling because she is so unwilling to see what is before her and act upon it: this for a woman who eloped with a man she had to have known her father would disapprove, yet did it anyway. Waterston captured some of that divided personality — strong yet vulnerable. Thomas is successful at making the loud speeches but not as much as capturing his character. He seems one-dimensional much of the time. The two other women in the cast are superb. Kate Forbes gets the earthiness and loyalty of Emilia, also her directness. Elizabeth Meadows Rouse makes Bianca a full-blooded person. Lucas Hall’s Cassio is a little less so.

The run has been extended through Aug. 9.

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