William Shakespeare’s gifts to the world include more than a few memorable villains – choice enough to make literary critics quibble as to which holds pride of place on the Ten Worst list. But Othello’s nemesis Iago always seems to fall within the top three, and for many he is the juiciest of all. A remorseless master manipulator who would have done Machiavelli proud, Iago sets nearly all of the play’s action in motion, is onstage more often than not and gets way more lines to perform than the noble, unsuspecting Moor. In the words of eminent critic Harold Bloom, “It is Othello’s tragedy but it is Iago’s play.”
Such a meaty role – a career soldier ever outwardly loyal and “honest,” even as he is scheming the overthrow of his rival and his superior officer – is of course catnip to serious actors, and many a fine Iago has been embodied over the centuries by eminent thespians. This summer, 17-year Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival (HVSF) veteran Kurt Rhoads gets his crack at the “pernicious caitiff,” as Othello is performed in repertory at Boscobel in Garrison with Two Gentlemen of Verona and Corneille’s The Liar through the end of August.
Directed by Christopher V. Edwards, the HVSF production is a straightforward interpretation, not digressing too far into contemporary sociopolitical analysis of its subtext about racism and sexism. Nor does Rhoads offer any hints in his acting of the recently popular hypothesis that Iago is partially motivated by repressed homoerotic yearnings toward Othello. The production could fairly be described as site-specific, taking advantage of the fact that the US Military Academy at West Point is a clearly visible backdrop to the play’s action. The playbill specifies “a contemporary military setting,” and Act One, Scene One commences with a platoon of soldiers dressed in blue camouflage materializing out of the heat haze over the Hudson Highlands and marching in crisp formation into the tent that forms the Festival stage.
In this context, we need no subtler explanation for Iago’s treachery than the fact that his long and distinguished service has been disregarded in favor of a younger, less battle-tested officer, Cassio (Andy Rindlisbach). When we first meet Iago he is grinding his teeth with envy, scorning Cassio as “a great arithmetician…That never set a squadron in the field,/Nor the division of a battle knows/More than a spinster.” (One cannot help wondering whether this speech is what inspired W. S. Gilbert to write the song “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General.”) From first introduction to final undoing, Rhoads portrays Iago not as a slimy, sneaking conniver, but as a rigid-spined authoritarian whose sense of the proper order of things is offended to the breaking point by being passed over for a well-earned promotion to the general’s lieutenant. He has played the long game long enough, and now he has run out of patience; he is ready to fight dirty and take everyone else down with him if need be. Hell hath no fury like a control freak who perceives matters spiraling out of his control.
Rhoads is absolutely chilling in the role, with an edge of mordant humor in the scenes where he effortlessly shapes Desdemona’s spurned suitor Roderigo (an excellent Jason O’Connell) to his will, milking the foolish nobleman’s fat purse and using him as his catspaw to undermine both Cassio’s new position and Othello’s new marriage. Game of Thrones fans will easily recognize in his Iago the classical template for George R. R. Martin’s cunning power player Lord Petyr Baelish, a/k/a Littlefinger. Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain, and perhaps all his veiled ambitions will bear fruit in his own good time.
The down side of a really strong casting choice for Iago, of course, is the danger anticipated by Bloom that the villain can run away with the play if not balanced by an equally powerful title character. That is true to some degree in this production. With not a whole lot of Shakespeare experience under his belt, Leopold Lowe’s performance is uneven. He gets some aspects of Othello pitch-perfect, such as his entrancement with his new wife in the scenes before Iago’s seeds of jealousy over Desdemona’s alleged infidelity with Cassio take root. When he interacts with his troops or defends himself before the Venetian Senate, we totally believe in Othello’s reputation as a forceful and decisive military leader who commands respect wherever he goes, however his detractors, like Desdemona’s father Brabantio (Stephen Paul Johnson), may play the race card behind his back.
But because the action in this play is so tightly telescoped over a mere few days, the scenes where Othello’s simple faith in his blameless wife is shaken and quickly twisted into murderous jealousy are very tricky to pull off. The Moor needs to be a man of formidable passions that can be manipulated by a skillful and determined insider, even though he be unassailable by external foes. He needs to project force of character even while he begins to fall under Iago’s lying spell and experience unaccustomed doubt. Lowe occasionally loses his way a bit in the scenes where Iago is feeding Othello suspicions about Desdemona one crumb at a time. The fact that his back is nearly always turned to some section of the audience on HVSF’s proscenium stage exacerbates the fact that he does not always project his lines as clearly as one might wish in this crucial transitional scene.
His physical acting, by contrast, can be really persuasive, as when he simulates Othello having a seizure or in the strangulation scene, which is suitably horrific. Since this show runs all summer, we can fairly hope that Lowe will grow into his demanding title role. Susannah Millonzi provides him with a fine foil; her Desdemona, while appropriately naïve, is no wimp, showing some spirit of self-preservation even in her bewilderment over her formerly ardent bridegroom’s rage.
Some of the best bits in Othello, including a great speech about double standards for sexual fidelity, are reserved for Iago’s wife Emilia, Desdemona’s lady-in-waiting. By casting HVSF’s other longtime treasure Nancy Williamson in the role, Edwards trains a spotlight on the scenes demonstrating Iago’s contempt for women in general and his wife in particular. Shakespeare merely has him unjustifiably suspicious that Emilia may have cuckolded him with Othello; but the real-life husband-and-wife acting team manages to add new layers of nuance, such as the notion that Iago no longer has any use for a wife who is merely a servingwoman, with little further capacity for advancing his ambitions beyond filching a certain potentially incriminating handkerchief from her mistress. Rhoads and Williamson shine separately, but really crackle with dramatic tension when they’re performing together.
All told, HVSF’s current production of Othello, the Moor of Venice is a richly rewarding evening of theater that ought not to be missed. Performances at Boscobel House and Gardens’ 540-seat outdoor pavilion are scheduled for July 10, 13, 16, 19, 21, 24, 30, August 2, 4, 7, 12, 15, 17, 21, 24, 27 and 30; check the HVSF website at https://hvshakespeare.org for alternate venues. Performances begin at 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and at 7 p.m. on all other nights. The grounds open at 5 p.m. for picnicking and taking in Boscobel’s stupendous view of the Hudson Highlands.
Ticket prices range from $21 to $79 depending on night of the week, seat location and age of audience member. Package discounts are offered. To order or for more info, call the box office at (845) 265-9575 or visit the website.
Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival’s Othello, July 10-August 30, 7 or 8 p.m., $21-$79, Boscobel House and Gardens, 1601 Route 9D, Garrison; (845) 265-9575, https://hvshakespeare.org.