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In our post-Freud, post-Einstein world of relative values, it’s hard to create a purely evil character. But Shakespeare, in the 17th century, had no such problem. His plays abound with truly villainous personalities - Lady Macbeth, Richard III and, of course, Iago - the vicious petty officer who drives Othello to murder his wife, Desdemona, in a fit of jealousy.

In fact, although Shakespeare named his play "Othello," after the not-too-bright Moorish general, it is Iago who is the most interesting and most eloquent character in the tragedy, and it is his portrayal that can make or break any production.

Fortunately, in David Logan Rankin, director Scott Cargle has found an excellent Iago for The Shakespeare Project’s production of "Othello," which is currently touring New York City parks.

Rankin’s Iago is devious and cunning - adept at finding other peoples’ weak spots and making the most of them - the gullibility of Iago’s wife and Desdemona’s gentlewoman, Emilia (the exceptional Suzanne Savoy); the swagger and rashness of Cassio (Walter Pagan); the insecurity of Othello (George Spencer); and the very kindness of Desdemona ("Shall I out of her own goodness make the net that shall enmesh them all?").

Rankin is an expert in the art of innuendo - nonchalantly dropping his hints as he weaves his web of deceit. He is the perfect rogue - cynical and diabolical, with no redeeming qualities.

Cargle makes good use of his outdoor environment.

Actors walk through the audience on their way to the stage. They walk off the stage and onto the lawn where they make speeches or deliver exit lines. This creates the impression of being enveloped by the action rather than watching it. And it is quite effective.

But the outdoor staging does have certain drawbacks.

The actors are not fitted with microphones, and much of the dialogue is lost to the ambient sounds of New York City at night - cars, overhead planes, people walking in the street beyond the park. And the incidental music and sounds would surely be much more effective if they were more audible.

Also, the sun sets completely at about the middle of the play, creating a darkness that emphasizes nicely the depth to which Iago is sinking. But from a more practical viewpoint, it makes it difficult for the audience to see what’s happening on the poorly lit stage. It also necessitates the actors holding flashlights in one hand and swords in the other during some of the more dramatic fight scenes.

If the company could find the money in its budget, however, a few well-placed microphones and lights could solve both these problems.

For the most part, Cargle has a solid hold on the meaning and action of the play, and the actors are faithful to their roles.

Othello is a good-looking stud with more brawn than brains. Roderigo (David Lamb) is lovesick and a little silly in his desperate attempts to woo Desdemona.

But this reviewer would have liked to see Elizabeth Kollings give Desdemona a little more spine in the face of Othello’s false accusations and rage - after all, this is the woman who defies her father to marry the man she loves.

The play might also be considerably improved with less sloppy blocking. Often there seem to be just too many actors onstage with nothing to do, standing in awkward spots where they cannot be seen, or blocking other actors.

But despite these flaws, The Shakespeare Project’s "Othello" is an exciting and passionate production. Even though we all know the outcome, Cargle manages to keep us on the edge of our seats (in this case, grass) anticipating with dread the bloody ending for so many of those involved with this man who "lov’d not wisely but too well."

Take a picnic dinner, spread out the blanket and enjoy one of the great plays of the English language under the stars.


The Shakespeare Project’s production of "Othello" plays in Brooklyn Sept. 4 and Sept. 5 at Fort Greene Park (DeKalb Avenue and Cumberland Street) at 7 pm and Sept. 8 at Sunset Park (41st Street and Fifth Avenue) at 7 pm. All performances are free and open to the public. For more information, call (212) 642-1070.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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