The Play's the Thing

February 21, 1994|By TIM BAKER

Imagine for a moment that you'd never seen or read Shakespeare's ''Othello.'' You don't know the plot or how the play ends. You decide to go see it at Center Stage, where it's running through March 20th. You settle into your seat. The theater lights dim.

Dark night falls. A lamp flickers and reveals the villainous Iago. He's set out to destroy his proud and noble commander, the black Moor Othello, who has just wed the fair Desdemona.

As the play unfolds, you watch Iago's relentless assault on the unsuspecting Othello's exposed vulnerability: the unexpected joy he has found in the love of his young bride. Iago's diabolical lies and tricks soon incite Othello's jealous suspicions and convince him Desdemona's been unfaithful. He decides to kill her. In the final scene, she lies sleeping in their white bridal bed. The enraged Moor descends upon her.

If you didn't know what comes next, you'd be on the edge of your seat. Will he kill her? Can't anything save this innocent maiden?

Even when you know exactly what's going to happen next, Center Stage's gripping production will have you on the edge of your seat anyway. You'll watch in horror.

This is Shakespeare's most chilling, most terrifying tragedy. The drama drives the Moor and his sweet lady toward destruction. No sub- plots interrupt to amuse or divert us. The pace quickens. Iago maneuvers his victims into an ever narrower and darker space.

A stark set accentuates the sense of accelerating disaster on a shrinking stage. Bare black metallic panels shift and reconfigure to define each scene. But they always seem to create a box. A cage. A trap.

In this constricted arena, Peter Francis James gives us a stunning portrayal of the Moor and his many emotions. At first, his Othello has dignity and pride. His race makes him an outsider. But in the councils of state, he assumes the easy aura of command.

Underneath, however, he's all too human. When he arrives in Cyprus and is reunited with his new and loving wife, he bursts with embarrassed bliss. "Oh my soul's joy."

But his luck in love startles him. His happiness seems brittle, uncertain, vulnerable. Then Iago goes to work on it. He arouses Othello's jealousy. Mr. James vividly portrays ''the green-eyed monster which doth mock / The meat it feeds on.''

We watch Othello's trust and confidence collapse. He's isolated. Suspicion torments him. Mr. James writhes and rages with each new twist of treachery. He's a man racked with agony.

Meanwhile, in counterpoint, Diana LaMar plays a sunlit but doomed Desdemona. Sweet. Fair. So innocent and unsuspecting that accident allies with evil. At critical junctures, when Othello might have spoken his suspicions, when a word between them might have cleared up everything, she unwittingly talks about the very man the Moor believes has cuckolded him.

Ms. LaMar poignantly conveys Desdemona's helplessness. She prepares for bed. We know what's coming. She takes down her hair and sings: "Willow, willow, willow."

We ache. Our anxiety for her becomes unbearable. She is so defenseless. Threatened by a husband's rage she does not understand. Trapped by a villain's treachery she does not suspect.

No one suspects ''honest'' Iago. Othello is no guileless dupe. Iago fools everyone. He's the most frightening intelligence in Shakespearean drama. Be careful. As played by Stephen Markle, he'll even fool you.

Mr. Markle's Iago is only candid with the audience when it serves his purposes. But listen closely when he talks about his own motivations. Why does he hate the Moor? Why does he want to destroy him? He gives us reasons. But don't let him con you. Watch what he says and does later. His motives are much more powerful than he ever wants us to realize.

In Mr. Markle's deft hands, Iago is a deeper and more challenging character than a ''motiveless malignity.'' He enjoys his own malevolence. But he has a purpose. It drives his whole being. He's not just envious that others have attained higher office. He wants more than recognition. He needs to prove his own superiority. In the compulsive pursuit of that ambition, he destroys Othello, Desdemona and himself.

This production falls in the middle of Irene Lewis's second full season as Center Stage's artistic director. Her direction of this "Othello" confirms the theater's good fortune in selecting her to replace Stan Wojewodski. The exciting regional theater which he and Peter Culman built is still held in skilled hands.

She takes risks. Desdemona plays her death scene in the nude. It's erotic. But it doesn't divert. Instead it achieves dramatic purpose. As the lady is smothered, her flailing naked legs rivet our eyes on her pathetic helplessness.

The new director also taken risks with her play selection. But last season's ''Escape from Happiness'' and ''Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill'' and this season's ''Fences'' packed the house. The audiences are more diverse. Ticket sales have rebounded from the recession.

No wonder. A season's subscription to Center Stage is a delight as well as a bargain.

Tim Baker's column appears on alternate Mondays.

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