An American tragedy

The Wall Street Journal isn’t publishing a print version today, but my Friday drama column appears as usual online. Today I report on the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival’s production of Othello. Here’s an excerpt.

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“Othello” is about many things, but one of them is (very obviously) race. You’d think, then, that Shakespeare’s harrowing tale of the jealous Moor and his innocent white wife would bring out the worst in postmodern stage directors, many of whom are reflexively predisposed to hammer any such hot button deep into the ground. And you’d be wrong, at least in my experience: None of the five “Othellos” that I’ve reviewed in this space since 2005 was explicitly political in its approach. Neither is Christopher V. Edwards’ new Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival production, a hard-nosed, hard-hitting modern-dress version that goes straight to the point—jealousy—and stays there….

-photo2-othello-kurtrhodes-leopoldlowe-photobywilliammarsh.jpg2014061The acting is naturalistic, the violence blunt and believable, and it isn’t hard to conjure up convincing backstories for the main characters. Mr. Lowe’s Othello could easily be a physically slight ghetto kid who joined the Army to escape the street and made himself over into a straight-arrow soldier. As for Mr. Rhoads’ regular-guy Iago, he’s an equally familiar type, a gray-at-the-temples wheelhorse who got passed over for promotion and now finds himself taking orders from a hotshot with a pretty young wife (Susannah Millonzi). He’s not oily, not sinister, not oozing with snarly malevolence: All he wants is what he thinks he’s got coming to him, and he’ll do whatever he has to do to get it. Such everyday conflicts are the stuff of which everyday murders are made.

Mr. Rhoads dominates the scenes that he shares with Mr. Lowe, and that’s as it should be. This is, after all, a staging in which Othello really is the “credulous fool” that Iago takes him to be, a basically good guy who never knew what hit him until it was too late. But it’s Ms. Millonzi who brings home the prize. She appeared three summers ago in a Shakespeare & Company production of “Romeo and Juliet” in which she played Juliet as a sullen woman-child ablaze with the fires of love. She hews to a similar line here, turning Desdemona into a fully sexual being who is hopelessly smitten with her handsome husband—which makes his dizzying descent into madness all the more horrifying…

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Read the whole thing here.

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