Theater Review: Nashville Shakes Has Riveting Look at ‘Othello’

_aRJM5479It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul, of much happiness that Nashville Shakespeare Festival has produced a movingly tragic Othello.

William Shakespeare’s masterful look at love, jealousy and betrayal is well served by the thoughtful direction of Jon Royal, strong performances from Eddie George, Nat McIntyre and others as well as designs by Morgan Matens, Colin Peterson and June Kingsbury.

_aRJM5566The company last did Othello in 1991 in its Shakespeare in the Park series. Now it is indoors as the seventh Winter Shakespeare presentation, and what an engaging production it is.

There’s an appropriately timeless feel to this version because of Matens’ neutral-colored movable set pieces, Kingsbury’s colorful costume variety and the crafty radar projections by Peterson. (I’m not saying this was a conscious inspiration, but I feel there’s a whiff of vintage “Dr. Who” in the overall look – particularly in such items the high-top military-style headgear worn by Venetian leaders – which is pleasing to a longtime fan of that program like me.) The design approach (well lit by Anne Willingham) keeps the focus on Shakespeare’s text, which allows us to probe overlooked Iago’s evil quest for revenge and the deteriorating state of Othello’s suspicious mind quite thoroughly.

_aRJM5487George, who debuted with Nashville Shakes in strong fashion two years ago as the titular player in Julius Caesar, has presence and swagger as the Moor of Venice. He also has the vulnerability and tenderness required in the role, and makes the most of the simple but profound eloquence the Bard built for his character. His chemistry with Laura Crockarell’s beautifully-delivered Desdemona (yet another example for Nashville audiences of her incredible range) is apparent from the moment they enter the stage; his grief when he realizes that the “green-ey’d monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on” has led him to commit a horrible wrong is wrenching.

An Othello is only as good as its scheming Iago, given his nearly constant presence. Thankfully that role has been entrusted to the very capable hands of McIntyre, who takes what could easily become a one-note villain and makes us understand both the man and his motivations. He’s at turns funny, serious and scary, putting such flesh on the script’s bones that one would think he was born to play the part.

_aRJM5613There’s excellent support from the others in the cast. Among those making worthy contributions are Jaye Phelps as the foolish Roderigo, Eric D. Pasto-Crosby (also the show’s adept fight choreographer) as the goodly Cassio, Jennifer Richmond as Cassio’s spirited love Bianca, Derek Whittaker as Desdemona’s flummoxed father Brabantio, Brad Oxnam as the orderly Montano, Ross Bolen as the ramrod-straight Duke and Erin Parker as Emilia, a wary woman caught between serving her husband Iago and Desdemona.

“Reputation is an idle and most false imposition, oft got without merit and lost without deserving,” Iago tells us. Well, he never knew the folks at Nashville Shakespeare Festival; their fine reputation is merited, and further enhanced, by this riveting look at the troubled soul who loved not wisely but too well.

The Nashville Shakespeare Festival’s presentation of William Shakespeare’s Othello directed by Jon Royal continues through Feb. 2 at Belmont University’s Troutt Theater (2100 Belmont Blvd.). Shows are at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, with 2:30 p.m. matinees on Sundays. Tickets ($27; $24 for seniors; $15 for students; seats are $3 less when purchased online) and more info are available by calling (615) 852-6732 or at nashvilleshakes.org or ticketsnashville.com. George’s understudy John Brooks will perform as Othello Jan. 16, 17, 18, 19, 23 and 24.This production is recommended for ages 10 and up.

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*Photos by Rick Malkin courtesy Rick Malkin Photography and Nashville Shakespeare Festival.

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for ArtNowNashville.com from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman's "The People vs Larry Flynt" among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (www.americantheatrecritics.org).