‘Othello’s’ enduring tragedy 

Iago is one of drama’s greatest villains. In African-American Shakespeare Company’s new streamlined production of “Othello,” he’s a she – and the gender switch works without a hitch.

The show, which opened Friday in the African American Art & Culture Complex, also has a modern setting, in a military tribunal in Iraq with presumably American soldiers – another alteration that serves the story well.

The universality of Shakespeare’s tragedy comes through loud and clear in this tale, told from viewpoints of Othello, Desdemona and Iago, of what happens when evil and jealously run rampant.

Sherri Young, executive director the company, culls terrific performances from a multicultural cast of fine actors, who bring out each character’s nuances with seeming ease. That’s not an easy task; ask any theatergoer who has sat through hours of bad, blathering Shakespeare – an all-too-common reality.

Here, the characters’ ranging, changing emotions are evident throughout.

Large and imposing, Aimee McCrary possesses a grand presence as the conniving Iago, whose clever lies convince the title character to doubt his wife’s faithfulness. Dressed in khakis, a button-down shirt and blazer, she takes command of the audience – as well as her fellow characters onstage – and doesn’t let go.

She mostly plays the character with an androgynous spirit, although there is an instant that suggests a slight spark of sexual tension between Iago and Othello. As Othello, Jeff Handy nicely portrays the character’s move from loving husband to enraged, vengeful adversary. His transition is totally believable.

As is Vivian Kane’s performance as Desdemona, doting wife to Othello. Kane persuasively plays a woman who, although she can’t understand her husband’s change of heart, still feels bound to him.

Sam Leichter is equally effective as Michael Cassio, the Othello’s unfortunate lieutenant who, after a bout of drunkenness, gets caught in Iago’s web of deceit.

Rounding out the cast is Meggy Hai Trang, who plays Desdemona’s confidante with feeling and finesse.

A simple stage design – a bar called the “Combat Zone,” a bunker, Othello’s room and Desdemona’s bedroom – nicely sets the scenes, as do the contemporary costumes: Othello, Iago, Cassio and Emilia in uniform-inspired attire, Desdemona in an attractive dress.

With the actors speaking in American accents, and the modern time and tone carried throughout (except a few references to Venice and "the Moor" that weren’t cut), this engaging “Othello” not only serves as a testament to the power and endurance of Shakespeare’s art, but is also a terrific introduction for young people. Matinee performances for schools are scheduled.

 
THEATER REVIEW
Othello

Presented by African-American Shakespeare Company

Where: African American Art & Culture Complex, 762 Fulton St., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. Saturdays; 3 p.m. Sundays (except no performance April 4); closes April 18
Tickets: $20 to $30
Contact: (800) 838-3006; www.African-AmericanShakes.org

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Leslie Katz

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