Shakespeare was onto this criminal-mentality game centuries ago and devised one of the nastiest psychos ever in Iago, the right-hand man in Othello, the Moor of Venice. The Bad Epitaph Theater Co. is now revisiting this Mediterranean bloodbath at Cleveland Public Theatre, with Iago reimagined as a woman. And while it's successful on several counts, this production misses the deeper soundings of love and betrayal, largely due to an unimpressive rendering of Othello himself.
Director Alison Hernan has boldly top-dressed the play's formerly controversial theme of interracial marriage with gender politics, featuring a fiendish lesbian villain who happens to be in a same-sex union. You can almost hear the fundamentalist wingnuts screaming, "What's next? Iago having sex with a golden retriever?" That's unlikely, since no self-respecting canine would come within 10 feet of Iago, as played by Meg Chamberlain. Using her rapier-sharp diction and some regrettably broad sarcastic glances, Chamberlain manipulates her hated boss, Othello, into a froth of jealous rage -- focused on his entirely innocent and devoted wife Desdemona (Magdalyn Donnelly, in a lovely and heartbreaking turn).
Along the way, Iago also destroys the slow-witted Roderigo (Joshua D. Brown), who dreams of competing for Desdemona's affections, while also attempting to take down Othello's other lieutenant, the faithful dullard Cassio (Nathan Gurr). The linchpin of the action, sensitive and courageous Othello, is played by handsome M. Scott Newson, who is the proud owner of a world-class smoldering glare. But when he speaks, many of his lines come out as hasty, mushed-together vowel sounds with no beats, thereby undercutting the magnificent tragedy of a man whose only flaw is a terminal case of gullibility.
As performed in the Orthodox, a quaint church now taken over by CPT, this Othello offers a few resonant moments that never add up to the full Shakespearean symphony.