Playwright: William Shakespeare. At: Gift Theatre, 4802 N. Milwaukee Ave. Tickets: 773-283-7071; www.thegifttheatre.org; $20-$35. Runs through: Aug. 24
Shakespeare never tells us how ethnically diverse the Venetian army was before an African soldier named Othello distinguished himself honorably in the war with Turkey for possession of Cyprus, but the recognition granted this valiant warrior would probably have stirred rancor among his subordinates regardless of his complexion or his marriage to a senator's daughter. The resentment is especially malignant in his immediate subordinate, Iago, already chafing under the indignities of a disabling injury and an indifferent wife. Next in line for promotion, he is nevertheless passed over for advancement, his rank instead going to the less field-savvy Cassio. Incensed by this perceived injustice, Iago swears revenge on his rival and his commander.
His plan, for those unfamiliar with the story, involves convincing the newlywed Othello that his adoring bride, Desdemona, is conducting an adulterous affair with the likewise innocent Cassio. Aided by the foppish Roderigo, Iago orchestrates a series of circumstances supporting his sly insinuations designed to rouse the gullible husband's suspicions. Emelia, aka Mrs. Iago, is also inadvertently pressed into service, as is Cassio's paramour and even the hapless new officer, himself. These become collateral damage after they cease to be useful, dispatched by a remorseless murderer whose confinement to a wheelchair in no way obstructs the implementation of his deadly stratagems.
Yes, you heard that right. For this Gift Theatre production, Iago is played by Michael Patrick Thornton, whose chair has been outfitted with headlights, military sidearms and concealed weapons to render him physically, as well as psychologically, threatening. Rather than ignoring this significant visual image, director Jonathan Berry embraces its integration into the stage picture ( at one point, a furious Othello pins Iago from behind, tipping his chair back on two wheels to further restrict his opportunity for escape ). In the title role, Kareem Bandealyan actor of Pakistani descentsuggests Othello's efforts to overcome his insecure social status through the care he takes with his appearance and his classically trained speech, as contrasted with Thornton's rumpled uniform, G.I. drawl and high-and-tight haircut.
With two such formidable presences, the performances of the mostly young cast cannot help but pale by comparison ( including that of storefront-circuit regular Brittany Burch, who needs to develop a few post-ingenue chops ). The greater mystery, though, is how a show with minimal scene changes occupying a stage barely bigger than a bathmat emerges with a running time of nearly three hours. All that aside, where else will you find yourself looking into the very eyes of a sociopathic killer as he blithely plots his victims' ruin?