Given the intricacies of time and place woven into the plots, adapting Shakespearean drama is fraught with danger. When it fails, as it most often does, it is usually because the new circumstances disrupt the original dynamics. When it works, as it does in this year’s Colorado Shakespeare Festival showpiece, “Othello,” the power of the original is not only rediscovered but amplified.
In its 46 seasons, the fest has come to be known for its commitment to adaptations of the Bard’s works. This can be a difficult legacy for directors to live up to, particularly in the tragedies, which (histories aside) tend to be most dependent on their settings. Yet Jane Page succeeds in her adaptation of “Othello.”
Set in the original locales of Venice and Cyprus, yet placed in the context of World War I rather than the 16th century, Page is able to establish the gruesome nature of the hostilities with historical slides and sound effects in a way only hinted at in the text. Coupled with David M. Barbers’ impressive classical porticos, which result in all but two scenes played en plein air, the free-wheeling natures of wartime and Mediterranean culture are successfully converged.
John Cothran establishes the stature of his Othello quickly, delivering to the Duke a persuasive, well-paced and emotion-laden defense of his surreptitious marriage to Brabantio’s daughter, Desdemona. Building on this breadth of character, Cothran seamlessly projects both a commanding physical presence and a decisive manner with his soldiers, and layers of passion and tenderness with Desdemona.
Called upon to back up Othello’s claims, Elgin Kelley’s Desdemona coolly manages to honor customary obedience to her father while making note of her parallel responsibilities to her new husband — thus highlighting a dutifulness that, once she’s alone with Othello, swiftly and easily transmutes into a young woman’s girlish passion for her shining knight.
But, the master of this wide-open playing field is Iago, and Matthew Penn mines every slithering nuance of this quintessential villain. From his initial conversation with Roderigo, where he solicits the lovesick boy’s fortune in trade for another chance at Desdemona, and continuing throughout the rest of his false-hearted encounters with virtually everyone onstage, Penn shows himself a master of the details of ingratiation, conceit, persuasion, bloodthirstiness and contempt.
Yet the power of Othello and cunning of Iago are both arrested by Emilia, when she discovers the machinations that have led to her mistress Desdemona’s death. In a brilliant turn, Karen Slack uses her brief early scenes to establish Emilia not as the careless woman she is often made out to be, but as a trusting wife and loyal friend who is equally victimized by Iago. This added depth in Emilia’s character allows Slack to exhibit a helping of gravity in the final scene that convincingly stuns both men.
Page continues to add to the stakes with Elliot C. Villar’s Cassio, who appears of mixed race, thus contributing further to Othello’s swirling miscalculations that now include the possibility of an illegitimate child whose father would be untraceable. Villar brings an ease and bearing to Cassio that serves to explain both Othello’s trust in naming him lieutenant and, later, Othello’s mistrust when he sees him as a substantive competitor for Desdemona.
By the time Roderigo, Desdemona, Emilia and Othello lie dead and Iago is finally on his knees at the mercy of Cassio, we have seen how lie upon lie, by those practiced in such arts, may bring the noblest of men to mistrust their own hearts and act counter to their own interests.