Standing “O”: A review of ‘Othello’ at Perseverance Theatre

Generally speaking, my wife regards Shakespeare the same way she responds to suggestions of watching a black-and-white movie for a change — with the eye-rolling boredom of a teenager. This doesn’t make her a bad person; it just means we see a lot of rom-coms.

Indeed, many people, myself included, remember Shakespeare as an especially grueling part of high school, complete with forced memorization of monologues, “jokes” only the teachers laughed at and, for my generation at least, the screening of wacky film adaptations like Mel Gibson’s “Hamlet” or “Romeo and Juliet” starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes. My parents had to sign a permission slip for me to view the 1968 Franco Zeffirelli version; partial nudity in that one.

Point is, like classical music and Scotch, Shakespeare tends to be a more adult taste — but those who acquire it REALLY acquire it. Perfect example: the woman sitting next to us at Perseverance Theatre’s 2015-16 season opener, “The Tragedy of Othello,” brought along her well-worn volume of “Collected Works” and we both followed along in the dark.

Therefore, I encapsulate my review thusly: not only did this woman give “Othello” a standing ovation, my wife did, too.

In case it’s been a while since sophomore English…

First produced in 1604 and taking place during the Ottoman wars of 16th-century Venice, “Othello” revolves around the title character, a Moorish general in the Venetian army; Desdemona, his wife; Cassio, his lieutenant and friend; and Iago, his trusted but scheming advisor. Iago, perhaps the most infamous villain in the history of Western theater, fabricates a love triangle between the other three by preying upon human weakness — and enjoying it.

The tightly constructed tragedy — no fewer than half the cast lie dead by play’s end — encompasses themes of love, envy, betrayal, revenge and repentance, with race and gender politics thrown in for good measure. In it, the Bard coins such expressions as “neither here nor there,” “I wear my heart upon my sleeve,” “the “green-eyed monster” (in reference to jealousy) and the “beast with two backs” (in reference to you-know-what).

Among Shakespeare’s better-known works, “Othello” also rates among the most venerated challenges for dramatic interpretation. Perseverance’s production hasn’t been re-set during the Iraq War, like a recent Royal Shakespeare Company production, or reconceived as a schlocky melodrama, like “O,” a 2001 film adaptation involving treachery on a high school basketball team. Which reminds me… for the 30-something couple sitting on our other side: you were right; it did star Mekhi Phifer, not Omar Epps.

Rather, Perseverance’s “Othello” hews to the original — much to its credit. There are no footnotes in live Shakespeare. A director must rely on actors to convey the subtlety, innuendo, humor and, often, a translation of what, precisely, all that fancy talk actually means.

And under the crisp direction of Tom Robenolt, “Othello”’s cast rises to the occasion. Each member delivers a powerful yet nuanced performance, transforming a potentially arcane, visually static museum piece into something far more dynamic and relevant.

Jamil A. C. Mangan, an accomplished stage and screen actor last seen tromping the Perseverance boards as Asagai in “A Raisin in the Sun,” shines as Othello — literally. At my show, so intense and slow burning was his portrayal of a warrior steadily undone by jealousy, pride and anger Mangan was glistening with sweat. It was like watching a nail in a furnace melt away into nothing.

And although Othello is the title character, the play belongs equally to Iago. Perseverance mainstay Brandon Demery’s Iago is a bad guy you root for, even as he destroys multiple lives for sport. Calculatingly false and brilliantly chilling, Demery is at his best delivering lines such as the advice he offers a suicidal comrade: “Drown thyself? Come, be a man. Drown cats and blind puppies!”

In a play driven by dramatic irony, Perseverance actor-in-residence James Sullivan delivers laughs as the hapless, easily manipulated Roderigo, with shades of his fussy, fidgety turn as Felix in last season’s “Odd Couple.” And Levi Rion Ben-Israel plays Cassio not simply as a dashing young soldier, but a dashing young soldier not entirely convinced of his own dashingness.

There’s no escaping the racial overtones inherent in “Othello,” the story of minority success, interracial love and the resentment both can unfortunately engender. However, as race isolates Othello in 16th-century Venice, gender isolates the women in this play, particularly Desdemona, played by Kat Wodtke. Wodtke brings an unwritten complexity to the role, playing an intelligent, confident woman simultaneously treated as a prize but discounted as a person.

In fact, I believe this may have ultimately proved the barb that hooked my wife.

“If Othello loves her, why doesn’t he believe her?” I found her leaning over and asking me anxiously.

You’d have thought we were watching some Mark Ruffalo-Jennifer Anniston flick. You know, if it wasn’t for all the swords.

“Othello” runs through Oct. 4 at Perseverance Theatre. Visit http://www.ptalaska.org/ for more.

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