Dark and tragic, Othello splatters blood at CleveShakes Fest

Moor to Love 

Dark and tragic, Othello splatters blood at CleveShakes Fest

It's time to toss the lawn chairs in the trunk, pack a mini cooler, and head out to the Cleveland Shakespeare Festival. This is the 14th year that CleveShakes has been mounting open-air productions of Shakespeare at various locations around the city. Best of all? It's free.

In the first of CleveShakes' two shows this summer, the company does a respectable job with the iconic tragedy Othello. Featuring some strong work in the leads and snappy pacing by director Aaron D. Elersich, this production manages to overcome some sketchy acting elsewhere.

In Othello we have the psychological ménage a trois from hell without any of the usual Shakespearean leavening by way of quirky subplots and goofy buffoons. The proud and arrogant Moor of the title, married to pure and innocent Desdemona, is maneuvered into fits of carnage by the surpassingly evil Iago. It's a barebones story that never loses its snap.

If this play had been written in modern times, it might be called The Handkerchief, since that item is so central to the cataclysmic events to come. This delicate bit of finery was the first gift Othello gave Desdemona, and she keeps it with her constantly.

But this is no simple square of random fabric to Othello. Spun from sacred silk and decorated by strawberries dyed with virgin's blood, the handkerchief to him is a pledge of absolute loyalty and purity. And when that millinery goes missing, and then is spied by Othello in the back pocket of the strumpet Bianca (Katie Atkinson), all hell breaks lose.

As Othello's ensign Iago, Brian Pedaci is by turns ingratiating, cunning, and downright despicable — and he's a blast to watch. He uses different approaches with each of his victims, bullying the defenseless Roderigo (Dylan Louis) into believing this silly gentleman has a chance to win beautiful Desdemona's heart.

But then Pedaci's Iago uses a fresh strategy as he pretends to befriend his hated enemy, Othello's lieutenant Cassio (Eric Fancher). First Iago manages to have Cassio lose his high rank in the Moor's retinue, then Iago convinces Cassio that the demoted soldier can get back into Othello's good graces by employing Desdemona as a go-between. Thus is the endgame set up, and Pedaci manages it all with brutal and sometimes even amusing clarity.

Anthony Elfonzia Nickerson-El cuts an imposing figure as Othello. But he starts slowly, downplaying his initial speeches so much that we never quite get a sense of this exotic soldier as an outsider in Venice. He seems more like a non-entity, a passerby.

But as Iago's plotting thickens, Nickerson-El ratchets up Othello's dominant qualities, both positive and negative, and we understand how he could be duped by his conniving comrade. Although Othello's tender feelings for Desdemona are a bit too muted early on, Nickerson-El makes the man's jealous rage palpable when he's led to believe Desi has been sharing more than that fateful handkerchief with Cassio.

Desdemona is always difficult to play, since the young woman is often seen as aggravatingly submissive and helpless. But Hannah J. Stofan asserts herself well in this part early on, defying her father Brabantio (Jonathan McCleery) and marrying Othello. But she recedes too far into the night as the play progresses, undercutting the emotion that should attend her ultimate fate.

Rising to fill that void is Margo Chervony as Emilia, Iago's wife and Desi's attendant.

Emilia, too, is misled by her husband and, when that leads to Desdemona's death, Chervony makes Emilia's rage and devastation deeply felt. Indeed, Chervony virtually steals the final scene as bodies pile up on Othello's bed and Iago finally pays for the anguish he has caused.

While this company of roving thespians continually encounters unpredictable performance issues — be they meteorological or otherwise — the show always goes on. In case of rain, indoor venues are generally available. And by using ground microphones interspersed with the portable footlights, everyone in the audience should be able to see and hear the entire proceedings — even if the birds are loud.

As led by their artistic director, the ever-affable Tyson Rand, the Cleveland Shakespeare Festival is a cultural treasure that cash-strapped Clevelanders should embrace.

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