Much of Shakespeare's Othello takes place in Cyprus, that island in the eastern Mediterranean flooded with dazzling sunshine. In contrast, Philip Kreyche's production of the play for his No'Az productions is staged mostly in shadows in the under-lit Center Stage on Real Street in Austin, Texas. The contrast between my memories of the island and the imaginary space inhabited by Kreyche's company was intense but appropriate.
Othello is, after all, about devilish work, double-dealing in the dark, culminating in a nighttime stabbing and assassination followed by the Moorish general's regretful murder in their marriage bed of Desdemona, the woman whom he loves beyond reason.
Philip Kreyche produces the piece, directs it, and appears as Othello. Intelligent and ambitious, in the past two years he has written pieces of remarkable depth dealing with the expressionist painter Oscar Kokoschka, with Persian epic myth and with the quasi-mythical Queen Boudikka (also Boadicea or Boudica) who fought Roman legions. He appeared with Austin Shakespeare as Octavius in Man and Superman and as Laertes in Hamlet, and this past spring he produced, directed and took the title role in Macbeth.
For this staging of Othello, Kreyche has assembled a strong cast that complements his talent and appearance. It's a gripping, at times searing evening, one that builds relentlessly through treachery to the tragic ending.
Kreyche is comfortably assertive, frank and well spoken as the North African general of the title role. Despite the title of the tragedy, it's Othello's subaltern Iago who drives the action with double-dealing and duplicity that he shares frankly with the audience. In that role Timothy Verret delivers a performance that is cynical, powerful and riveting. Verret uses emphatic, mannered gesture throughout, a physical style that one might associate more readily with the likes of Will Kempe, the famous clown at the Globe. Kempe never had the opportunity, of course, for he had separated from the company some years earlier and died in 1603, the year that Othello was probably first staged. Often, the attraction of the clown is his complicity with the audience -- a wink, a grimace, an acknowledgement that he and we know more than the others on the stage. Verret's Iago is deadpan most of the time but that candor and his physicality draw us to him even as we resist his intentions. Surely there's nothing more alarming than an evil clown, one who's resolutely without a smile. Though Verret is not a small man, in the presence of Kreyche as Othello he appears to contract in height, somewhat like a turtle retreating into a shell.
Christina Leidel is playing opposite Kreyche for a second time. Her Lady Macbeth was turned inward; in contrast, her frank and adoring Desdemona is immensely attractive and cleanly transparent. Desdemona's confusion is evident as Iago poisons Othello's mind against her. The scene in IV, 2 in which she confides her chagrin to Iago's wife Emilia, played by Grace Marlow, is deeply touching. Emilia braids her mistress's hair and speaks of preparing her bed as if both women have a foreshadowing of the murder to come.
These four have a beautiful mastery of the language and the verse. They are ably supported by a reduced but capable cast, including especially Rob Novak as the unfortunate Michael Cassio, cashiered by Othello and supplicant to Desdemona.
There is a smooth, inevitable build to the final scene in the bedroom. In that small theatrical space the pallet is laid out almost within reach of the first row. The scene plays with a breathtaking intimacy of emotion, from Kreyche's entrance with the grieving monologue "It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul" through accusations, pleading, the strangling of Desdemona and Emilia's discovery of the murder.
There is no lag in the staging, which is done with a single intermission. Costuming is appropriate for a bare-bones staging, except for the fact that the thin fabric of the tights on male actors made underwear unfortunately visible. Lighting is often inadequate, and a key reach on stage left of this black box theatre remained entirely dark.
This Othello is a swift and moving evening, and Kreyche's performance outdoes his previous appearances, all laudable, for depth and eloquence. Timothy J. Verret's Iago is equally striking and memorable. Othello and Iago live vividly in these dark scenes and define for us the opposed far reaches of moral dealing.