Playwright: William Shakespeare. At: Chicago Shakespeare Theater at Navy Pier, 800 W. Grand. Phone: 312-595-5600; $44-$70. Runs through: April 6
Imagine a band of former prep-school chums, now grown to adulthood, but still fond of playing adolescent pranks on one another. Inject into this privileged milieu a lad of humble birth whose rise to success exceeds their own, but who never adopted his new comrades' irreverent attitudes. Then introduce a diehard elitist who so resents this upstart that he takes what begins as a nasty, but potentially harmless, joke much too far, resulting in violence and murder.
Thus, director Marti Maraden reveals just how close Shakespeare's gloomy fable of vengeful deception comes to Wodehousian farce. Her transposition of the story to late-Victorian period makes for an ambience of straitlaced artifice recalling the comedies of Oscar Wilde, or even Gilbert & Sullivan. And the casting of fresh-faced Paul Niebanck as the duplicitous Iago, as contrasted with Derrick Lee Weeden's rustic-accented Othello, renders us immediately aware of the cultural dissimilarities between the two. In this context, our villain is no brooding, teeth-gnashing, moustache-twirling schemer—indeed, Iago's ruses are so transparent that only the gullibility of his peers allows him to get away with as much as he does—but a sociopathic brat whose fault lies in his refusal to let his victims in on the gag, even after the stakes grow deadly.
Playgoers who prefer their tragedies to be hankie-wringers from beginning to end may be dismayed by the number of laughs excavated in the early parts of the action by Maraden's contemporary approach. Those on the alert for subtexts associated with race-based tensions will likewise have to search hard for evidence attributing the Moor's outsider status to anything beyond Venetian snobbery. If Othello's home had been located, not on the African, but the European coast of the Mediterranean Sea—Calabria, say, or Corsica—it's no likelier that Desdemona's stuffy old dad would have welcomed him any more warmly as a potential son-in-law.
The technical expertise required to sustain the pace required for a show running just minutes over three hours—Niebanck's superlative long-line phrasing, for example, or Weeden's pristine-edged enunciation—never calls attention to itself, but instead is seamlessly integrated into the psychological dynamic in this Chicago Shakespeare production. Vocal coach Christine Adaire and text coach Larry Yando together share the credit for this accomplishment this time. In the future, when attending any Shakespeare play, check the playbill roster for staff consultants employed in this capacity. If you don't find them, ask why not.