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Stage Review

A stellar ‘Othello’ from Actors’ Shakespeare Project

Josephine Elwood and Johnnie McQuarley are Desdemona and Othello and John Kuntz (background) plays Iago in “Othello.”Stratton McCrady Photography for Actors’ Shakespeare Project

Shakespeare paid special attention to the psychology of his villains, and Iago is arguably the most villainous of all — even though he’s called “honest Iago” so often, it sounds like his given name. Perhaps being true to your hideous self is a kind of honesty. In any event, “Othello” gets a thoroughly honest, and moving, production from Actors’ Shakespeare Project at the Modern Theatre, with stellar performances from John Kuntz as Iago and Johnnie McQuarley as Othello.

Like the Bard’s Richard III, Iago is too clever for everyone around him. He starts by baiting one of Desdemona’s unsuccessful suitors, Roderigo; he’ll go on to hoodwink Cypriot governor Montano and soldier Cassio and lead Othello “by the nose.” He’s angry, he says, because he and not Cassio deserved to be made Othello’s lieutenant. He also imagines that his wife, Emilia, is having affairs with Othello and Cassio. Oh and he’s a racist and a misogynist. Shakespeare could hardly have made him less likable, and yet it’s Iago, with lines like “ ’Tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus” and “Who steals my purse, steals trash,” who’s the play’s wit and philosopher.

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He’s not the source of all its evil, however. There’s amazement on all sides that the fair Desdemona would run to the Moor’s “sooty bosom.” That overt racism undermines Othello’s confidence in himself, and in her. Shakespeare is telling us it can also be in others that we are thus or thus. And though his plays are seldom models of internal consistency, this one is riddled with contradictions. First Cassio’s married, then he’s not. Othello says his mother got the fateful handkerchief from an Egyptian, then decides she got it from his father. There are so many puzzles, you don’t know who, or what, to believe. Perhaps that’s the point.

Certainly Kuntz will have you believing that Iago is a regular guy. He has an imaginative scheme for avenging himself on Othello, and as the plot unfolds, it’s hard not to admire his straightforward address to the audience, and his ingenuity. He’s even tolerably nice to his wife, which is not the way in many productions. Right from the start, when his eyebrows arch as he refers to Cassio as an “arithmetician,” Kuntz is the master of detail, and the cadence of his delivery is delectable.

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McQuarley is an unusually soft, tender Othello who looks lovingly at his wedding ring and, when Desdemona first entreats him regarding Cassio, puts her off affectionately. Even when the green-eyed monster takes hold, he remains wistful. Josephine Elwood, so good as a 6-year-old in the company’s “God’s Ear” last season, is here a seductive ingénue whose Desdemona doesn’t quite evince the substance Othello says he married her for. Ross MacDonald’s Cassio looks more like an English footballer than a Florentine mathematician, but he’s both military and sympathetic. Bari Robinson is an engagingly whiny Roderigo.

Director Bridget Kathleen O’Leary has turned Montano and Desdemona’s father, Brabantio, into Montana and Brabantia and cast the roles with women — a decision that blurs the lines in a play whose themes include patriarchy and men’s domination of women. Elle Borders lacks authority as Montana but is a kittenish Bianca. Doubling as Brabantia and Emilia, Jennie Israel gives accomplished readings, but her Emilia is too worldly-wise not to perceive the importance of the handkerchief, and she towers over Elwood, making Desdemona seem even more girlish.

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Eric Levenson’s simple, effective set frames stairs with massive pillars in Mediterranean shades of coral and blue. Just when you’re wondering how the final bedroom scene will be staged, a bed slides out from the stairs. Tyler Kinney’s tending-to-modern costumes work best in the soldiers’ fatigues. Some discreet cuts (“Who steals my purse, steals trash” among them) and rewrites bring the running time down to a reasonable two and three-quarter hours. If this isn’t an “Othello” to die for, it’s pretty close.

Jennie Israel (top) as Emilia and Josephine Elwood as Desdemona in “Othello.”Stratton McCrady Photography for Actors' Shakespeare Project

OthellO

Play by William Shakespeare. Directed by Bridget Kathleen O’Leary. Presented by Actors’ Shakespeare Project. At the Modern Theatre at Suffolk University, Boston, through Oct. 25. Tickets: $33-$50, 866-811-4111, www.actorsshakespeareproject.org


Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at jeffreymgantz@gmail.com.