Theater Review: "Othello" 

Richmond Shakespeare explores the undeniable issue of race in Shakespeare's classic.

click to enlarge othello.jpg

After viewing “Othello” on opening night I couldn’t help but think about the slaying of Trayvon Martin.

It was the same evening that George Zimmerman had been found not guilty, and while I’m not sure any big conclusions can be drawn between Shakespeare’s play and recent history, both raise questions about race and its ever-present role in our society today.

Race is undeniably a theme in “Othello,” and it’s partly because of the titular character’s status as a Moor that he is conspired against. While he’s initially a good man who has attained stature as a successful general, in Venice his race will always be held against him.

As the play begins we learn that Othello has promoted Michael Cassio over the older and more battle tested Iago. Between this insult and his suspicion that Othello slept with his wife Emilia, Iago puts plans in motion to destroy Othello. By playing characters off each other and capitalizing on Othello’s recent elopement with white Desdemona, Iago slowly takes out his enemies as he climbs his way to the top.

To portray Iago, you need the kind of actor who can cruelly manipulate others while still making the audience laugh, and Richmond Shakespeare has that in Ryan Bechard. As he demonstrated in last season’s “Macbeth,” Bechard has a natural ability to mine the darker side of humanity, and his Iago is no different. Bechard’s Iago takes a grotesque delight in his dark deeds, and is quick both on his feet and in intellect.

Stephen Seals has the voice and stature of a general as Othello, but has difficulty grappling with the role’s more dramatic elements. Laurel Maughan is sufficiently sweet and likeable as Desdemona, which makes her ultimate demise all the more affecting. Rebecca Anne Muhleman gives an excellent performance as Iago’s wife Emilia, absolutely devastated when she realizes her role in helping Iago achieve his objectives. Working with one of Shakespeare’s longest texts, Jan Powell’s direction keeps the pace moving right along, and Margarette Joyner’s costumes fit the period.

When the lights fade out the audience is left wondering exactly what all the bloodshed was for. Was it ambition, racism or both? Who, if anyone has won? Like any modern day incident involving race, “Othello” seems to raise more questions that it does answers.

Richmond Shakespeare’s “Othello” plays through Aug. 4 at Agecroft Hall, 4305 Sulgrave Road. Tickets and information at richmondshakespeare.org or by calling 866-BARDTIX.

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