I admit I have a problem with Shakespeare’s tragedies. Most are brilliant until the middle of Act III, at which point they quickly slide down a hill of blood into a heap of undifferentiated corpses. The 70 characters who are stabbed to death are not really compensated for by the two who are much more creatively baked into pies.
“Othello” is the exception for me. Yes, the title character smothers his wife, Desdemona, then kills himself with his sword. A few others die in the line of dramaturgical duty. But the villain, Iago, lives — and the play as a whole does, too. Swift and brutal, it makes a poisonous beeline from premise to conclusion without much gore or digression along the way.
This keeps its fascinating psychology front and center. Why does Desdemona marry Othello, a much-older general who is battle-scarred and — because he is Black and she is white — sure to shock her highborn Venetian family? Why is Othello so easily tempted by his ensign’s ruses into a jealous dementia? And why, most interestingly, does that ensign, Iago, set out to destroy him in the first place? Is it racism? Ambition? Disgruntled Employee Syndrome?
Shakespeare never lets on. “Demand me nothing,” Iago snarls at the end, in one of the great evil brush-offs of literature. “What you know, you know.”
That the American Shakespeare Center’s production of the play, streaming on Marquee TV through Sept. 14, does not answer the question of Iago’s motives need not have been a fatal flaw; the best productions don’t either. That it barely reaches the question is problematic, though. If Ethan McSweeny’s staging for the Staunton, Va., company is approachable and agreeable, and scores points for managing face-to-face acting in the midst of the pandemic, it never gets close to developing a coherent point of view or argument.
Perhaps the main reason is the pandemic itself. When Actors’ Equity forbade its actors to work under the “SafeStart Season” precautions the theater had developed with local medical authorities — precautions that included having the entire company quarantine together all summer — union members who wished to continue had no choice but to resign their Equity membership. Two, including Jessika D. Williams, who plays Othello, made that no-doubt painful choice.
And Williams, with her professional technique and polished presence, does stand out from the mostly raw, non-Equity company that took the other roles. She operates at more than one volume level and in more than one key, and can make herself understood in all of them. Still, it seems that she and McSweeny have let the novelty of her casting stand in for interpretation; they deliver the story but not the mystery.
To be fair, the pandemic that created the casting problem is also exacerbating it in another way. The company embraces what it calls “Shakespeare’s staging conditions,” including minimal scenery on a mostly bare platform and “universal lighting” that reveals the auditorium as well as the actors. Neither of these conditions, however they may work on the Elizabethan thrust stage at the Blackfriars Playhouse, where this production was recorded, translates well to the camera. Often shot from a middle distance, with occasional cutaways to the masked audience in their sad, discrete clumps, the cast too often seems broad and unfocused, with more energy than intensity.
Even so, “Othello” can’t help building power as it hurtles toward the climax you keep thinking could still be avoided. Here, Mia Wurgaft as Desdemona is particularly effective, not believing, any more than we do, that what is happening is really happening. Once it does happen, though, the production’s diffuseness instantly returns; the brief coda in which justice is rendered is too rushed to achieve the chilling gravity it deserves, and Iago’s last line seems like less of a curse than a snit.
That’s a shame because “Othello,” in my experience, is not only the greatest of Shakespeare’s great tragedies but also the timeliest. (OK, maybe you’d have a good contest on that count with “Julius Caesar.”) That a Black man is essentially killed by a white man who is pledged to protect and serve him is just the start. “Othello” also asks us to think about a number of interlocking and seemingly mutually incompatible traits that humans nevertheless insist on possessing in sets: the warlike and the amatory, the trusting and the suspicious, the clever and the manipulative, the passionate and the possessive.
And, in a rich production, it asks us to consider one more thing: how easily leadership can be perverted by cynicism. It isn’t very far from “What you know, you know” to “It is what it is.”
Live performances through Sept. 19 at the Blackburn Inn, Staunton, Va.; then through Oct. 18 at Blackfriars Playhouse, Staunton, Va.; streaming online through Sept. 14 on Marquee TV.