If it’s true that all you really need to put on a great show is two boards and a passion, then Theater for a New Audience proves the dictum with its austere production of “Othello.” As helmed by Arin Arbus, Shakespeare’s domestic tragedy has been stripped of its stage trappings and presented virtually in the raw. With no fussy sets or costumes to lean on, a brilliant cast finds the freedom to focus on the elements of the play that matter most: the tortured psychology of its characters and the language of the gods who created them to suffer.
Directors rule at Theater for a New Audience, which is having a banner season with productions helmed by the likes of Peter Brook and Robert Woodruff. Arin Arbus, associate a.d. of the company (and recent recipient of a Princess Grace Award), maintains the momentum with her riveting staging of Shakespeare’s dark tale of murderous jealousy and obsession.
A few sturdy props on a raised stage, a pin-pointed lighting scheme, and a muted color palette calculated to draw the eye to soul-revealing facial expressions are sufficient stagecraft for this intimately mounted production. The swordplay devised by B.H. Barry may be the flashiest element in the show, whose power is all in performance.
The problem with “Othello” has always been Othello. No matter how subtle and cruel the Iago, we can never completely like or respect the stupid man so quick to believe his faithful Desdemona has deceived him.
With John Douglas Thompson commanding the stage in the role, that disturbing image of an imperfectly socialized black man tormented by the perceived perfidy of his white trophy wife is simply swept aside. This splendid Othello is no simple-minded romantic, no gullible dupe, but a man of heroic strengths and psychological depths, undone by the tragic flaw of self-doubt.
Building this complex character incrementally, Thompson first asserts his imposing physical presence to establish Othello’s stature as a military man, commanding the respect of armies and striking terror into the hearts of marauding Turks. He then shows us that the general is also a skilled politician, entirely at his ease among senators and nobles. Finally, in his beautiful delivery of the speech in which Othello recounts how he wooed Desdemona, Thompson bares the strong man’s sensitive soul, revealing him as a tender lover of beauty.
This is the man — the whole man — that Desdemona fell for, making Juliet Rylance’s loving portrayal of the doomed bride entirely understandable. Rylance has a radiant quality that can’t be bought, and her unaffected warmth dazzles us as much as it does Othello.
Once the lovers’ compatibility is established, along with the essential soundness of their unorthodox marriage, Thompson is safe to explore the dark side of Othello’s personality that will destroy it all — the part of his character that feels guilty for stealing his bride without her father’s blessing and unworthy of the domestic happiness he won through a quasi-military campaign. This is the secret self that has ambivalent feelings about being a black man who left his native land to fight his way to the top in a nation of white men.
Only Iago can see that vulnerable side of Othello. While Thompson makes it clear why Shakespeare called his play “Othello,” and not “Iago,” Ned Eisenberg’s masterful portrayal of that villain fastens on the true source of his power over Othello — not the “motiveless malignancy” of pure evil, but his intellectual superiority.
That penetrating and cruelly witty intelligence is at the heart of Eisenberg’s Iago, a performance that seems to feed on Othello’s gradually disintegrating rationality. By the time Othello utters his heartbreaking farewell to “the tranquil mind,” the battle is already lost.
As for the rest of the ensemble, the uniform smoothness of their performances indicates that they have clearly read the play — over and over and over. It’s no feat of elocution, but a sign of intellectual understanding that Shakespeare’s beautiful poetry trips so lightly from their tongues.
So while credit goes to Arbus for the production’s overall excellence, it seems only fair to give a special nod to text consultant Robert Neff Williams, for unlocking new meanings in familiar words.