Theater Review: OTHELLO

This Othello hits like a fist to the stomach. There’s very little tenderness, save for the early scenes between Othello (Amos Tamam) and Desdemona (Avigail Harari). Frustration, greed and, above all, spite are dominant, and not just any old spite. This spite is vicious, driven by malice aforethought, by an obsessive desire to get even without counting the cost, and yes, in this our day and age, by racism, the more poisonous because it’s covert.

In his program notes director Rubinstein also mentions ageism, that Iago – and he’s played oh so peerlessly by Rami Baruch – is upset that Othello (also young) has chosen young Cassio (Shlomi Bertonov) as his deputy, but one gets the feeling that this is just an excuse, like Iago’s casual reference to the fact Othello is supposed to have seduced his wife, Emilia (Andrea Schvartz). And of course Iago, that “motiveless malignity” as Coleridge named him, is the villain of the piece, and he succeeds. Oh, how he succeeds!

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“O, beware, my Lord, of jealousy!/It is the green-eyed monster, which doth mock/The meat it feeds on.”

And he proceeds to feed Othello with it relentlessly via Cassio, via Emilia – an unknowing dupe – via a “handkerchief/spotted with strawberries… [that] did I today/See Cassio wipe his beard with.”

And Iago has another dupe. He’s Rodrigo (Nadav Assulin), who’s carrying a major torch for Desdemona – who doesn’t even know he exists, of course – whom Iago casually and comically mulcts of money and jewels, promising to aid his hopeless quest.

His careless torture of poor Rodrigo is just a dress rehearsal for the larger, beautifully orchestrated torture of Othello, who in this production feels inadequate enough inside because of his blackness in a white world, and who succumbs with surprising ease to Iago’s mental drilling.
He kills Desdemona, then tries to kill himself in an ending that to me is spurious – but I shan’t be a spoiler.

“Hell is other people” says Jean Paul Sartre in No Exit, and indeed some of (much of?) this Othello takes place in the hero’s tormented mind. The action is aided by Polina Adamov’s unsettled and unsettling set that is moving platforms in water (Venice and Cyprus, where the action takes place) and a moving back wall that shuts the characters in, compressing their world, plus props that shout cuckoldry. Adamov’s costuming is contemporary with an Elizabethan ruff or two to remind us.

Avi Yona Buena aka Bambi’s lighting is somber, with red for blood and green for jealousy where apt.

Apart from Baruch, whose never-repentant Iago effortlessly holds and directs our attention, kudos to Tamam’s ingenuous Othello who believably makes the transition from decisive general and confident leader to an almost wholly crazed emptiness. Kudos also to Nadav Assulin, whose Rodrigo provides much of the comic relief. Rodrigo is an idiot, a bumbling idiot, and Assulin plays him to the hilt.

Bertonov’s Cassio is serviceable, and the actor shows the character as the innocent kid he basically is. As Emilia, Schvartz has a bit too much swagger, but perhaps she needs that, being wife to Iago. I can’t quite see her as Desdemona’s confidante though – which she is. Nor does the fact that she, too, is uniformed help. It is hard for an actress to be empathetic – and Emilia is written thus – dressed as the soldiers are dressed.
Desdemona’s role is difficult because Shakespeare wrote her as a good girl, and not too much more, but here she’s a good girl who sticks to her guns, knows where her loyalties lie, and won’t back down. At least, that’s what Avigail Harari makes of her, to her great credit.

This Othello makes the point that it’s dangerously easy to undermine decency. Be warned.