by William Shakespeare
Directed by Jason Slavick
Featuring Jonathan Epstein & Tony Molina
Boston Theatre Works in BCA Plaza

539 Tremont St. Boston/ (617) 933- 8600
through Mar.11

Reviewed by Will Stackman

The play is "The Tragedy of Othello, Moor of Venice" and the title role has been one of the plums of the Shakespearean canon. But given two actors of equal force, Shakespeare's construction of this tightly-plotted tragedy gives much of the focus to the villain of the piece, Iago, played in this production by Jonathan Epstein. This year, Boston Theatre Works has not only been able to get his services again, but has engaged the Shakespeare & Co. veteran with whom Epstein performed the play in Lenox for the title role. Tony Molina would not normally be available but the Tulane University Company of which he is a member is on hiatus. New Orlean's ill wind has blown him back to New England for the present. In this reprisal of their roles however, Epstein and Molina will not be switching off regularly as they did in the Berkshires.

BTW was also able to cast a younger S&C actress Susanna Apgar, seen as Katherine in "Henry V," as Desdemona, Othello's bride. Ten year S&C veteran Elisabeth Aspenlieder plays Emilia, Iago's wife, assuredly in the background until the play's stunning climax. The congruence of style and experience by these four main characters bolsters the show. The remaining five local actors bring their own particular experiences to the show.. ART grad and filmmaker Trey Burvant adds a breezy touch to Michael Cassio, Othello's new lieutenant, the major focus of Iago's rage. Michael Keogh is convincingly callow as Roderigo, the young Venetian Iago's been gulling. Actor and retired teacher Ray Jenness, currently working for the Gloucester Stage Company, takes on three older roles; Desdemona's father, the governor of Cyprus whom Othello replaces, and a Venetian senator present for the denouement. Claire Shinkman, who played Laertes this summer in "Hamlet" at the Theatre Coop, functions as a Venetian administrator in the first act, and Cassio's bawdy playmate, Bianca, for the rest of the show. Finally, Publick Theatre and Shakespeare Now! stalwart, Gerard Slattery plays the Doge of Venice and later Montano, an official on Cyprus. There are no supernumeraries in this focused presentation and minor textual omissions if anything clarify the action. The barebones technique developed by S&C over the past decades really pays off in this production.

The show is performed in the BCA's oldest theatre space, a broad 3/4 stage now called the Plaza, on an abstract unit set designed by Zeynep Bakkal, who did BTW's "Homebody Kabul" there last season. There's a simple square podium stage center before a row of large two-sided doors, red and black. These revolve as a backdrop, sometimes partly open, all black when needed, and completely red at the finale. A strip of sea and sky can be occasionally glimpsed beyond. John R. Malinowski's expert lighting creates much of the atmosphere for the show. Rachel Padula Shufelt's economical modern dress costume scheme has a timeless feel. The military uniforms are only one step beyond rehearsal blacks, while Desdemona's classic and revealing white gown marks her as the sacrifice. Cam Willard's soundscape of wind, storm, and musical underscoring completes a very tight production. There is no furniture and only really necessary props. These include an impressive array of real cutlery, handled expertly by Epstein and Molina, with everything careful staged by fight director and sometime Shakespearean Kim H. Carrell

Director Jason Slavick has not imposed any unique interpretation on the show, but allowed an experienced cast to weave the action into an organic whole. Since all can pay strict attention to the text, in this smaller space--unlike last year's "The Tempest" which had to be performed in the vast Cyclorama upstairs after BTW's Tremont home was closed--much greater vocal range is possible, from almost conversational moments to powerful poetic sections. The last major production of this classic in town was a touring version brought in by the Guthrie, under NEA auspices, which seemed ultimately rather flat and overly respectful. On the Majestic's antique proscenium stage there was a distance which blunted the tragedy. The ART's mirrorbacked large-cast extravaganza several years ago had as many high points but was defeated by erratic direction. The chamber style production uses everyone's talents to their best advantage.

Both Molina and Epstein are unafraid to take chances while relying on sound technique to sweep the action along. This "Othello" up close and personal achieves much of the script's potential while leaving the play's essential enigmas intact. Tragedy happens, as the Greeks knew. Hubris sweeps both Othello and Iago away. Each can justify their actions to themselves; neither sees the light until far too late. Molina and Epstein are able to add a depth to their performances which only comes from great familiarity with the roles, allowing small discoveries to continually reinvigorate them, while providing the rest of the ensemble with a drive that sweeps the whole show along.

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