Where: The Gift Theatre, 4802 N. Milwaukee Ave.
When: through August 24
By ANNE SPISELMAN
Othello” at The Gift Theatre represents a few firsts: the first time the 13-year-old company has presented a play by Shakespeare, the first time director Jonathan Berry has tackled the Bard, and my first visit to the tiny theater on the Northwest Side.
And I do mean tiny. The house only seats 40, and the simple black platform stage can barely hold the ensemble of more than a dozen actors. Dan Stratton’s scenic design is limited to a few panels that are turned to indicate scene changes and a couple of white boxes that function as everything from benches to Desdemona’s death bed. Sarah Hughey’s lighting also is pretty basic, and Stephanie Cluggish’s more-or-less modern-dress costumes are more baffling than anything else. The Cypriot men wear turbans and pantaloons, for example, while the Venetian soldiers’ uniforms remind me of country club car hops’. Desdemona’s summery mini dresses might have been fashionable — but I’m not sure when.
On the other hand, Berry’s direction is interesting, and the acting is impressive. The style is unlike any Shakespeare you’re likely to see: very conversational and scaled to the intimacy of the setting. This allows Kareem Bandealy’s Moor to alternate between ruminations so quiet you can barely hear them and explosive outbursts that are all the more frightening because of the contrast. And Michael Patrick Thornton, performing in his wheelchair, transforms Iago from an arch villain into a conspiratorial manipulator who represses his rage and takes us along on an emotional roller coaster.
The relationship between these two is at the heart of this “Othello,” and the actors use everything at their disposal — ncluding the way Othello expresses his anger at Iago by tipping back his wheelchair to exert control — to get that across. Iago clearly has the upper hand, even though Thornton, calm and matter-of-fact even when he’s enumerating his grievances and justifying his behavior, masterfully makes us feel that he’s making up his schemes as he goes along. The compact Bandealy, increasingly agitated as jealousy takes hold and consumes him, becomes obsessed with revenge and unable to think of anything else.
Brittany Burch’s Desdemona hardly seems worth the fuss at the outset but shows her true mettle at the end. Rather than coming across as a paragon of virtue and innocence, she’s initially more like a vacuous blond trophy wife of limited intelligence, partly because she has a flat, wimpy voice. As her loving husband morphs into a force to be feared and her life unravels over a lost handkerchief, she’s like a deer in the headlights. Yet once she knows she’s doomed, she pleads and fights for her life with admirable determination and right on her side. I was won over by an inner strength belied by appearances.
The supporting cast is able if a little uneven. As Cassio, Jay Worthington epitomizes the straightforward guileless soldier, the antithesis of the devious Iago over whom he was preferred as Othello’s second in command, thus causing that latter’s determination to bring him down. Gabriel Franken’s Roderigo, the foolish Venetian gentleman pointlessly in love with Desdemona, brings some comic relief to the proceedings, even as Iago makes him his unwitting lackey with fatal consequences. Darci Nalepa acquits herself well as an unsmiling maid Emilia, who’s torn between the duty she owes her husband, Iago, and loyalty to her mistress, Desdemona.
Many of the actors double as minor characters, such as the Duke of Venice (Robert Kruse), the Governor of Cyprus (Alexander Lane), and nobleman Lodovico (Keith Neagle), and as members of the general ensemble of Venetian soldiers, Cypriot locals, etc. This makes it a little difficult to keep track of who’s who, but no matter: The political takes a back seat to the personal in this production, and the particulars of the battle between the Venetians and the Turks over Cyprus remain murky, but the conflict still resonates because of contemporary frictions between Greek and Turkish Cypriots.
Berry’s staging could be more imaginative, but overall I’d recommend The Gift’s “Othello.” See it soon, however: As of Aug. 14, Franken replaces the remarkable Thornton as Iago; Neagle takes over as Roderigo, and Scott Alan Luke becomes Lodovico.