The villainous Iago makes everything happen in Othello. He pulls all the strings and pushes all the buttons to make others jump to his will. And since that will is evil, all his machinations lead as well to his own destruction. You've got to love it.

Compass Theatre Company's production of the Shakespeare classic at the Denver Civic Theatre captures the essence of Iago's malice so vividly it makes you ache with anguish for the play's namesake Moor. Under the dual direction of Christopher Selbie and Nick Guida, the tragedy leaps and sputters with life, and with torturous revelations about the nature of human malevolence and mind control. It isn't perfect--there are some uneven performances and dim characterizations, and the production values are Spartan indeed. But who needs perfection when you can have new insight--and who needs gloss when you can have the messy textures of real human feeling and interaction?

Othello is a war hero in Venice. He has served his adopted country well, even being forced into slavery before eventually achieving victory over Venice's enemies. But he is also a foreigner, an outsider of a different race and culture than the Venetians. So when he elopes with the daughter of a prominent man, that man's racism makes him believe Othello has bewitched his daughter.

Of course, she does love him--innocently, fully and deeply. But her innocence and passion can be made to seem like something else in the wrong man's hands. Iago, Othello's ensign, is a sociopath who has imagined a grievance against Othello and so decides to destroy him. Iago's evil genius is to turn each person's virtues inside out, just as he uses their weaknesses to exploit them. Othello is noble, big-hearted, honest, trusting, passionate--and Iago uses all these virtues to shatter the hero's peace and make him suspect his innocent bride of sexual betrayal.

We recognize that Iago's game -- undermining the hero's strength from the inside--is as contemporary as toxic waste. Shakespeare's understanding of human nature is as relevant to our time as to his own: Virtue in itself is insufficient protection from evil--wisdom is requisite.

Christopher Selbie plays Iago as a mocking, cynical, delighted weasel--a weasel, in short, with a sense of humor. This Iago enjoys the havoc he wreaks, but with such cool pleasure that even the prospect of his own torture fails to wipe the smile from his face. He has no conscience, of course, no glimmer of remorse--but neither does he express a shred of seriousness. It has all been an elaborate amusement for him.

In Selbie's interpretation, Iago's manipulations and cajoling are shorn of rage and self-pity--and without rage or self-pity, Iago is a monster too terrible to endure. The actor's brilliant, layered performance brings out subtle highlights in the play and underscores the profundity of Shakespeare's insights in tantalizing ways.

Dwayne Carrington's Othello is graceful, beautiful and noble. Though he stumbled over a few lines on opening night, he was up to the task when the second act demanded a great gush of tragic emotion--and this despite a passionless plea from Nan Crawford's pallid Desdemona. Crawford gets innocence right (not so easy for most actresses) but plays most of the role in a stupor. She doesn't seem to mean it even when she pleads for another hour of life.

Steve Wilson as the bamboozled Roderigo invigorates his part with complex buffoonery. Joseph Miller is an odd, awkward Cassio--but always oddly believable. Joey Wishnia as the Duke of Venice is a rock-solid presence. And Margaret Amateis Cassart as Emilia, Iago's wife and Desdemona's attendant, brings a sardonic realism to her performance.

The action is kept lively, the fight sequences are energetic and the directors make the most of the theater's limited resources with effective lighting and the suggestive use of a hanging piece of luminous cloth that alternately becomes the sail of a ship at sea or the backdrop for Desdemona's bed. The final impression: a genuinely gifted company with an exciting, original vision of Shakespeare.


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