The magisterial Moor bellows with a Caribbean lilt and poor doomed Desdemona chirps like a wounded starling in the Stratford Festival’s stylish, well-spoken rendition of “Othello.”
Directed by Chris Abraham, it’s also glorious to look at, both for the beauty of the actors and Julie Fox’s stunning set, a masterpiece of simplicity that avoids the usual travelogue setting (the play takes place in picturesque Venice and stormy Cyprus).
Instead, the stage of the intimate Avon Theatre is dominated by towering scarlet walls and a square, steeply raked black platform that revolves, taking us from roiling city streets to Desdemona’s intimate bed chamber.
Othello is the “thick-lipped” general whose tales of swashbuckling conquest in the service of the Venetian state have charmed the fair daughter of nobleman Brabantio into marriage, scandalizing her father and her wimpy suitor Roderigo.
That’s enough to set in motion the evil machinations of Iago, the battle veteran infuriated that Othello has promoted the untested Cassio over him. He vows revenge by planting the seeds of jealousy, that “green-eyed monster.”
Dion Johnstone is an attractive Othello. But he lacks the charisma and stature that give both his ascent and his dizzying fall from grace the power to divert us from wondering how such an accomplished, self-assured man could be such an idiot.
As Iago, Graham Abbey resists mustache-twirling villainy, playing instead a careerist tortured by unfair treatment.
Yet this, too, seems to detract from the essential evil of a character whose credo is that the universe is ruled by a God who is inattentive at best and indifferent at worst (something Verdi conveyed with crystalline precision in his great opera).
Bethany Jillard’s Desdemona comes to vibrant life only in her death scene, pounding away at her master as Othello strangles and, for good measure, suffocates her.
In addition to Fox’s beautiful setting and traditional costumes, the show gets excellent support from Thomas Ryder Payne’s terrific music underscoring and the great fights staged by John Stead.
This striking production marks the midpoint of Antoni Cimolino’s first season as artistic director, following the popular Des McAnuff. Stratford always has something for everyone; the choices range from serious Shakespeare to “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Blithe Spirit” and a revival of McAnuff’s production of “The Who’s ‘Tommy’”.
“Othello” runs through Oct. 19 at the Stratford Festival, Stratford, Ontario. Information: +1-800-567-1600; http://www.stratfordfestival.ca. Rating: ***
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(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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