If there is one of Shakespeare’s tragedies that most exasperates me, it is "Othello." It is to the play’s credit, of course, that I can get so riled up, time after time, watching this dramatic threesome catapulted to their doom for no more good reason than a misplaced handkerchief. The Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey has staged a reverential, if not enthralling, production, under Scott Wentworth’s direction, that has as its chief asset a most radiant Desdemona, played by Caralyn Kozlowski.
Kozlowski, who is back for a third season with the company, thoughtfully offers considerably more than the fresh and delicate image of a true and loving wife to the Moor. She literally illuminates the dark play with her naturalistic grace and speech. For that matter, the fine performances by the two other two principal women — Jennifer Van Dyck, as Iago’s loyal wife and Erin Lynlee Partin, as Cassio’s mistress — gave the dominating male egos manipulating them cause for concern, as they were more easily disposed to avoid classical pretensions.
I would like to say that Raphael Nash Thompson, who is making his debut with the company, but has a list of impressive professional New York and regional credits, carries enough of the Moor’s nobility, stature and technical proficiency to offset his rather one-note and pallid performance, at the performance I caught (Actors traditionally have a tough time with the first matinee after opening night). His is an Othello with the prescribed resonance but little complexity. His speech has a measured musicality but it is also far from reflecting the sum and substance of a memorable Othello. In movement, gesture, and mood, Thompson elicits little that one would expect in a victim of political and amorous intrigue, let alone one prone to epileptic fits. In his favor, is the impression we get of a consumed-with-passion fool more likely flamed, however, by his political naivet and thwarted by personal insecurities. You can trust that Thompson makes these applicable considerations work.
Iago’s treachery — a singularly malevolent thrust from start to finish — has been well served by many actors with varying degrees of loathsomeness. Paul Mullins, who played Roderigo in a 1993 Shakespeare Theater production that starred Chuck Cooper, as Othello, is not an actor who is ever satisfied relying solely on the text for interpretation. In Mullins’ grip, we see almost more than we need to about this perniciously evil creature. Iago’s deceptive and duplicitous nature is all but branded on Mullins’ readable face and body language. One is apt to wonder why a character whose words and actions we are so slavishly made to hate is not more easily recognized by anyone in the play. But credit Shakespeare for his talent for manipulating our emotional response.
Pleasingly credible was the virile Gregory Derelian, as the duped wine, women and song loving Cassio, and Michael Stewart Allen, as the foolish and brainless Roderigo.
Even with an Othello who is not always at the helm, we cannot help but be swept along by the sheer power of the play’s domestic upheaval, the political intrigue, and the intimate passion at work, no matter how splintered. With set designer Michael Schweikardt’s earth-colored plaster walls and a few doors, you won’t know whether you are looking in or out of doors, let alone in Venice and a seaport in Cyprus; except for the final scene, in which a bed is rolled out and sheer curtains are drawn. It was in and out of centuries for Marion Williams’ costumes, notably the blue/grey uniforms of the Confederacy for the soldiers.
Othello, Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison, 973-408-5600. $23 to $43. Performances to November 23.