by Michael “Buzz” Buzzelli, ‘Burgh Vivant.
The green-eyed monster rears his ugly head in William Shakespeare’s “Othello.”
One lone malcontent, Iago (Jeremy Kushnier) decides to stir up a big, boiling pot of trouble when he decides he dislikes the new command structure in his regimen. The vicious ensign launches a treacherous campaign to undermine his new general, Othello the Moor (Teagle F. Bougere).
Iago struts and frets about the stage with malicious glee. First he poisons the mind of Roderigo (Christopher Michael McFarland) when he learns that the Moor has married Desdemona (Amanda Leigh Cobb) in a secret ceremony. Iago and Roderigo approach Othello’s newfound father-in-law, a Venetian senator named Barbantio (Edward James Hyland), who was unaware that his daughter married the black general. Barbantio is unhappy with the new marriage, but when Desdemona gives an impassioned speech about her new husband, the senator racism melts away. If only all senators can be dissuaded from racism as easily (Hello, 21st Century America, I’m looking at you).
The Duke of Venice (David Whalen) orders Othello to Cyprus to quell an uprising of Turks. Othello takes his Venetian army to the isle. Along with his assemblage of soldiers, he takes his new lieutenant Cassio, Iago, and Iago’s wife Emilia (Jessica Wortham), who also happens to be Desdemona’s attendant.
By the time they arrive in Cyprus, the Turkish soldiers have withdrawn when a frightful storm destroys their fleet. The Venetian forces celebrate, all but Iago, who uses the peacetime to wage an internal war. He pollutes Othello’s mind with thoughts of jealousy. Othello demands proof of his wife’s infidelity, and, as luck would have it, Desdemona drops a handkerchief.
Yes. A handkerchief! The fate of so many lives revolve around a tiny square piece of cloth. But this handkerchief is nothing to sneeze at (so to speak).
Iago plants the hanky on Cassio and seals his fate. “Othello” is a famous tragedy, so we know things aren’t going to end well. In the final act, the body count rises. Not as many die here as in “Macbeth” or “Hamlet,” but it’s a bloody final act.
And while the play is titled “Othello” but it is clearly Iago’s show. Kushnier does a superb job as the malevolent adversary. Iago is one of Shakespeare’s most sinister villains, often considered such because of the unique trust that Othello places in him, which he betrays while maintaining his reputation of honesty and dedication. Othello frequently refers to his ensign as “Honest Iago.” The incongruity of the appellation causes raucous laughter.
Actually, for a tragedy, “Othello,” under Ted Pappas’s direction, is played big and broad, and there are plenty of laughs. Most of the humor stems from Iago’s ignoble acts. He slithers about drawing the unsuspecting into his lair. Kushnier is a masterful villain. His scenes with the unwitting Roderigo are a joy to watch. Thanks to the talents of both men.
Any lesser actor would let Kushnier usurp the show from the titular star of the tale, but Bougere is more than a match for him. Othello’s jealousy is visceral, palpable. His rage shakes the stage. He commands the stage, chewing the sparse scenery. Some may find the show over-the-top, but Shakespeare is meant to be played to the highbrows and the cheap seats.
Because it is a show about soldiers, there are very few women around. Two of the roles are stereotypes (Madonna and whore), the fair and chaste Desdemona (a solid performance from Cobb), and the sly and lascivious Bianca (deftly played by Robin Abramson).
However, there is a third woman, Iago’s wife, Emilia. Her role is the juiciest of the female roles, even though could easily be considered “info-dump,” because she parses out a good deal of exposition in the play’s final moments. Wortham finds nuances in the character. It’s another terrific performance in a show filled with terrific performances.
Normally, the Pittsburgh Public Theater wows the audience with scenic design. Scenic Designer James Noone’s set is magnificent and austere. It’s a bit more Spartan than usual, but it works well for this production.
William Shakespeare’s birthday is April 23. I can’t think of a better way to celebrate.
(“Othello” runs till May 17 at the O’Reilly Theater, 621 Penn Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15222. For more information, go to www.ppt.org)