While trimming the Bard’s tragic tale of treachery and jealousy, to make it better suited to an outdoor theater, helmer Ellen Geer eliminates many of the colorful side trips that imbue the work. What remains is a powerful, clearly stated, step-by-step perusal of the destruction of mighty warrior Othello (James Avery) and his devoted wife, Desdemona (Willow Geer), through the serpentine machinations of the wily but demented Iago (Jim LeFave). In Geer’s inventive staging, a talented ensemble makes great use of the bucolic spaciousness of the surrounding Topanga woods to enliven these dastardly proceedings.
Despite the play’s title, Geer quickly lets the audience know who the real central character is when the Moor Othello whisks the fair and compliant Desdemona off to be his wife, much to the consternation of her ragingly racist father, Brabantio (William Dennis Hunt), and love-sick suitor Roderigo (Jeff Wiesen). Observing all with a seething fury is Othello’s stalwart ensign, Iago, who has been passed over for promotion in favor of the younger, less experienced Cassio (Travis Brazil).
With all superfluous distractions pruned away, this becomes Iago’s play, and LeFave rises to the task. Exuding a captivating amalgam of emotional volatility, wily gamesmanship and immaculate timing, LeFave’s Iago manipulates the actions of Roderigo, Cassio and Iago’s wife, Emilia (Melora Marshall), like so many hapless chess pieces.
Utilizing flattery, innuendo and downright trickery, Iago’s masterpiece of intrigue is his insidious destruction of the mighty Othello’s psyche through jealousy, leading the brilliant but flawed military leader to destroy the one person he loves most dearly, Desdemona.
A stage vet better known for his successful TV career (“The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” TNT’s “The Closer”), Avery’s staunch, in-depth portrayal gives added weight to the tragic sense of loss, as Othello falls victim to Iago’s insidious deeds. Avery is convincing as a supreme commander who sweeps away all objections to his marriage, yet exudes a puppy-like devotion to his young bride. He believably communicates every moment of doubt, pain and rage as his layers of resolve and self-confidence are peeled away by Iago’s knifelike insinuations and accusations.
Avery is ideally matched by the exuberant, woman-child portrayal of Willow Geer. Her Desdemona is so openly adoring of her husband, especially in her schoolgirl exuberance in championing the cause of her friend Cassio, that she could never imagine Othello thinking ill of her. Her eventual understanding that Othello has found grievous fault with her reduces this once magnificent beacon of love to a state of emotion-drained catatonia.
Melora Marshall offers a compelling presence as the conflicted Emilia, who reluctantly aids her husband by stealing what proves to be the most damaging evidence against Desdemona, a handkerchief that was a precious gift from Othello. When Marshall’s Emilia realizes what horrific consequences have resulted from her action, she spews forth a tangible amalgam of despair and hate at villainous Iago, knowing full well it will result in her own doom.
Also acquitting themselves well are Travis Brazil with his portrayal of stalwart but clueless Cassio and Jules Wilcox as Cassio’s always willing but hot-tempered mistress Bianca.