One of the murders in Shakespeare's Hamlet has always puzzled me. King Claudius steals the throne from his brother by pouring poison into his ear as he sleeps. An ear simply doesn't seem like a very effective route for poison.
Unless, of course, you're Iago, Shakepeare's most chilling villain and the star of Othello, now onstage at the Rogue Theatre.
What makes Iago so monstrous is how rarely he does his own dirty work. Instead, he pours his poison—poisonous words—into the ears of the innocent and the credulous until they inevitably succumb, like victims in some Elizabethan zombie movie.
The Othello at the Rogue is an enjoyably solid production. It doesn't revolutionize Shakespeare's tale of a Moorish soldier, driven by lies to kill his wife in a jealous rage. It provides no daring new interpretation, no "high art" production concept. What it does do is present the play simply, with strong acting and effective design, allowing the beauty of Shakespeare's writing to shine. In fact, this may be the perfect opportunity for the Shakespeare-shy or the tragedy-phobic to jump in and get their feet wet.
To that end, let me address a few concerns that often linger after the brief and tedious exposure to Shakespeare so many of us had in high school.
• Shakespeare is boring.
Rest assured: This production is anything but. Director Cynthia Meier keeps the action moving at a good pace, marshalling her ensemble over and around the multi-tiered set.
Joseph McGrath (who also plays Iago) has designed a thrust stage for the Rogue's flexible space, with seats on three sides—a layout resembling that of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre. This inevitably means there are times when your sightline is poor, or when the actors deliver their lines facing away from you. But it also means that most of the audience can sit close to the action and have a better emotional connection with the characters.
• Shakespeare's language is hard to understand.
While reading the text of a play, it's easy to get lost in unfamiliar words and archaic cultural references. However, while viewing a play, a cast of actors has the job of making the meaning clear. This cast does so with almost every line.
Perhaps their language is so clear because each character is performed with such clarity: Conniving Iago (McGrath), pure Desdemona (Avis Judd), noble but fallible Othello (Nathan Crocker). When their words or phrases occasionally escape you, it doesn't matter; the meaning is carried in the characters' tone or action, often with the support of the eerie and evocative period music from musicians Harlan Hokin and Paul Amiel.
• Shakespeare's plays are too long.
This production runs 2 1/2 hours. That's less time than it takes for the trip to Pandora in Avatar—and includes an intermission besides.
• Shakespearean actors just walk around the stage in silly costumes, acting stuffy.
First off, the costumes, designed by director Meier, are quite beautiful. The colors and styles help to paint the characters, from the bright-red dress Desdemona wears when Othello believes her to be a strumpet, to the innocent white shift dress she wears beneath it, to the crumpled, shapeless brown dress worn by Iago's put-upon wife.
As far as the acting, Meier has prompted her cast to deliver naturalistic performances. No one is hamming up their iambic pentameter or traipsing about in tragic poses. These mostly seem like recognizable human beings.
The gullible Roderigo (John Shartzer) comes across as a hipster in over his head. Cassio (Robert Anthony Peters) is like a good-natured frat boy.
Desdemona, for the sake of the story, has to be impossibly virtuous and beyond any reproach. Judd doesn't try to change this, but she humanizes Desdemona a bit. She plays her as a newlywed devoted to her husband, rather than as a professional virgin.
Even McGrath's performance as Iago is notable in its human scale. There is no moustache-twiddling or ominous laughter. And this soft-spoken Iago is all the more horrifying because of his calm, reasonable demeanor.
The one ill-fitting character is Iago's wife, Emilia. Most of Shakespeare's plays have a stock comic character, and the very talented Patty Gallagher appears to have been directed here to fill that role. But as the all-too-real evil swirls around her, Emilia's cheerful smile and inability to suspect her husband's motivations make her seem like a character from a different play.
• I can't handle a tragedy.
Do people go to horror movies expecting the beautiful teenagers on-screen to come out OK? No. They go for the morbid satisfaction of watching bad things happen to good (if shallow) people, followed by a reassurance that justice will triumph, and that life will go on (at least for the survivors).
In the beginning, Crocker's Othello seems like Shakespeare's equivalent of one of those Hollywood victims. He's handsome, charming, well-spoken (in spite of his insistence to the contrary) and loved by everyone. It's not surprising he's won the heart of the fair Desdemona, nor is it surprising that Iago wants to take him down a peg—or 10.
As Othello transforms from sweet to scary in the second act, Crocker pulls out all the stops and takes him to some dark places. He makes it clear that this is the same noble Othello we saw before, and that all of the seeds of this new behavior were there already. It's just that he's now terrifyingly crazy.
Shakespearean tragedies are not about sentimental weeping, anyway. Remember, drunken commoners made up much of the Bard's audience. They had to stand for the entire performance, and talked back to the actors and threw things when they got bored.
Tragedies may be wrenching or horrifying, but they are meant to be entertaining. So as the lies, the despair and the bodies pile up in Othello, just remember—it's all (or mostly) in good fun, so have yourself a wicked good time.