Today’s culture is so diverse and mixed-race couples are so prevalent that any present-day revival of Shakespeare’s “Othello” is in danger of lacking racial tension. Perhaps this is why so many productions today—including an Elizabethan-dress “Othello” currently packing them in at London’s Globe Theatre—have instead played up the sexual jealousy angle. Writers’ Theatre’s superb “Othello, ” however, manages to do both. It surprisingly makes race a prevalent presence throughout by means of director Michael Halberstam’s uncluttered staging and his ensemble’s understated performances that allow the Bard’s text to shine throughout and thus the work’s explicit racism to pummel you. And it powerfully charts the corrosive effects of that “green-eyed monster” through the believable and gradual journey into madness by James Vincent Meredith in the title role, an actor with a voice so rich and smooth it effortlessly captures Othello’s mellifluously warm tones, yet can just as easily roll into a lion’s roar. In contrast, John Judd’s brandy-soaked-voiced Iago, sounding like Everyman and looking like Everyman, is the perfect casting choice for a character that must convince his audience he is capable of disrupting this Othello’s Colin Powell-like demeanor with transparent Machiavellism. If I wasn’t entirely clear about this Iago’s motivation for such nihilism—the script could support several interpretations—it matters little: the signature intimacy of Writers’ Theatre means that even if you can’t pinpoint a character’s exact psychology, you can see their mental wheels spinning and still feel complicit in it. Thrilling. Productions of “Othello” are few and far between and yet within seven months Chicago Shakespeare Theatre will unveil theirs. I’d say the “Bard” has been set. (Fabrizio O. Almeida)
Writers’ Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe, (847)242-6000. Sat 4pm & 8pm/Sun 2pm & 6pm. Through Jul 15.