There’s almost a court jester-like giddiness to the infernal scheming of Iago in the Old Globe’s Othello, now at the outdoor Lowell Davies Festival Theatre. When the Moor of Venice’s ensign (Richard Thomas) is alone on stage, sharing with the audience his cunning plans to undo the general he despises, his malevolence is more than boastful: it’s electrically charged. That the transparency of his plot and all its machinations can not be recognized by Othello, or by anyone else save Iago’s wife, Emilia (and not until it’s too late), has to me always seemed an impediment to the potency of this play. How could Othello be so duped? He did not “love wisely,” but did he even love “too well?”
That these questions persist nevertheless speaks to the resonance of this Shakespearean tragedy, which launches the Globe’s Summer Shakespeare Festival under the direction of Barry Edelstein. This is an aesthetically stunning production, with sublimely simple scenic design by Wilson Chin, timely percussive music from the rafters by Jonathan Hepfer and Ryan Nestor (music used to better effect here than in Edelstein’s earlier The Winter’s Tale) and a Desdemona (Kristen Connolly) costumed by Katherine Roth who couldn’t look lovelier and more angelic.
Thomas revels in his Iago-ing, certainly upstaging Blair Underwood’s Othello. Underwood’s mannered Act 1 orations as proud general and spellbound lover feel self-conscious, though like the character he inhabits, he comes alive when jealousy becomes unbalanced rage in Act 2.
One of the production’s quieter, yet most enduring scenes is that between Desdemona and Emilia (Angela Reed) taking place just hours before Desdemona is murdered. Connolly stills the Balboa Park night with her dulcet rendering of the “Willow, Willow” song, while Reed sounds a strident feminist note that is much needed in this tragedy about men who can be and often are, foolish, vengeful and unworthy of love.
Edelstein’s employment of live music and moments of choreography are, again, more successful here than in The Winter’s Tale. His is an Othello for 2014, though blind jealousy and its inhumanity be timeless.
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat