At The Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Angus Bowmer Theater, Tony Taccone's "Othello" is to die for. It's a powerful production that deftly combines stark sets with opulent costumes to strip the drama to it's psychological core. It's done mostly in black and white variations with earthy golds and browns. This production lays bare the basest aspects of racism. It is the driving force behind all of the opposition that is mounted against the lovers.
Othello and Desdemona appear on stage about ten minutes before the play begins. They sit in silent stillness like two Buddhas in golden robes with electronic music in a repetitious heartbeat, like Philip Glass' "Satyagraha." It's the pulse of life. The background is slatted blinds. With Tony Taccone's productions, especially, you are rewarded for arriving early. As the audience filters in, the music rises. It builds in strength until the actors rise. They walk around the pool of water at the front of the stage and passionately embrace. Lights come on behind the screen and soldiers rush from back stage to crashing percussion.
Iago and Roderigo are appalled that the lily white Desdemona can love Othello, and they rouse her father, who is livid. Nothing is even thinly veiled, but this is out and out racism as they all make comments about his blackness, how he bewitched her, etc.
The last time the company did "Othello," Iago appeared to be a very nice guy, while he worked his poison. Not this production. Anthony Heald's portrayal is pure evil, driven by his hatred for Othello. He tells this to Roderigo right at the beginning, and repeats it several times in the first part of the play. This character is relentlessly evil like Richard III. No compassion whatsoever. He's methodical and calculating as he gets Cassio drunk and provokes the brawl. The tavern scene is excellent. It comes right after the first intermission. We return with a very slow motion pyramid of one woman entertaining several men in the tavern. There are colored lights, some of the few in the play. They roll away and the action speeds up, with Iago riding atop the wine cask like a horse. The entire chorus calls for Cassio to drink, and the results are disastrous. There's a good fight scene that uses the entire stage with some convincing sword play.
When Desdemona makes her first pitch for Cassio after his banishment she saucy and tart. Nice touch, but it certainly works against her. This, probably more than anything else in this production, opens Othello to believe that she could betray him. It certainly isn't Iago. In the fencing scene Othello seems to not believe him, as much as he does. He holds his head under water, but eventually comes around to his jealousy. The barrenness of the production strips away all of the frills and lays bare the very soul of the drama and the cancerous effect of jealousy in general.
An ethereal quality is added as Othello descends into madness. The handkerchief is spotlighted and dwelled upon as soon as Desdemona drops upon it. Nothing subtle here. When Iago shows Othello the interplay between himself, Cassio, and Bianca with the token, Othello is behind the blind on the catwalk above the stage. His voice is amplified against the others, to make it sound as if from another level. When the Deputy comes to call Othello back, it's lighted behind the blinds with people moving from side to side. Othello is centrally lit in cold white light at the back, facing the blind, while Iago faces the audience at the front in a warm golden light. An amplified voice comments on the unbelievable change in Othello. He remains on stage moving tortuously throughout the intermission, before we return for the finale.
Derrick Lee Weedon is as powerful and passionate an Othello as I have ever seen. In the program he dedicates the role "To LeWan," presumably The Oregon Shakespeare Festival's last "Othello," LeWan Alexander. He rises mightily to the occasion. Derrick Lee Weeden is truly a very special actor. Amy Cronise is a lively and sweet Desdemona. Robynn Rodriguez stands out as Aemilia. Todd Barton's original electronic music drives the action in this scintillating production of "Othello" at Oregon Shakespeare Festival. It continues through October 31.