The Plague of Jealousy: more on Othello at OSF, 2008

Peter Macon and Dan Donohue in 2008 OSF OTHELLOHaving seen the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s 2008 production of Othello twice now, I have two strong recommendations: 1) See it while you still can—it only plays in the outdoor Elizabethan through early October, and, 2) Get seats as close to the stage as you can beg, borrow or steal.

The Elizabethan is a big outdoor venue, best suited to broad comedy and grand spectacle. The first OSF production I ever saw, in fact, was in the Elizabethan—the 1996 Coriolanus, most memorable to me for the moment, right after intermission, I believe, when Derrick Lee Weeden—be still, my heart!—came rappeling down the left wall of the theater to portray Coriolanus’ escape from Rome. It was a show-stopper of a moment, earning a theatre-full of oohs and ahs and a standing O. I’ve been in love with the Elizabethan (and Derrick Lee) ever since. (Where is he this year, by the way?)

However, the more Othellos I see, the more I believe it to be one of Shakespeare’s most painfully intimate and psychological pieces, difficult to do justice to in any large venue, let alone the Elizabethan. With that in mind, I confess that the first time I saw this production, seated as I was way in the center back, under the balcony, I was underwhelmed in terms of overall production values. I felt that Lisa Peterson’s direction was workmanlike but uninspired, and that Peter Macon’s Othello was too broad, unmeasured, even over-the-top. Sarah Rutan’s feisty-feminist Desdemona seemed to me completely wrong-headed.

Dan Donohue as Iago, however, was, as he almost could not help but be, riveting. He had the audience eating out of his hand, not to mention, groaning and gasping in all the right places. But terribly myopic as I am, I was unable at that distance to see Donohue’s face, and could not at first get a handle on this terrific actor’s particular answer to the sixty-four thousand dollar question of all Othello productions: What the devil is Iago’s motive?

Still, taken as I was with Donohue’s intelligence and energy, I was determined to see the show again, this time in a front row seat where I could more easily observe the characters’ interactions and the actor’s characterizations.

It was like seeing an altogether different production. Close in, Peterson’s direction and staging struck me less as uninspiring than simply disciplined and spare—I would still have wished for a more original use of the stage, perhaps, or better yet, that it had been staged in the Bowmer; but I was also grateful that Peterson avoided the sort of theatrical pyrotechnics that while delightfully appropriate for, say, Comedy of Errors or Midsummer, would have distracted from the psychological explosiveness of the story and character arcs.

Willard White in the Trevor Nunn production of OTHELLOThis time, too (and counter-intuitively, perhaps), Macon’s “over-the-top” Othello made more sense close up. Though lacking the warmth and gravitas that makes Willard White’s my favorite Othello—one can easily see why Desdemona would sacrifice all sorts of things for such a man!—Macon’s Moor seemed more coherent the second time around: a proud man, perhaps, who has compensated for a life lived in the shadow of prejudice by adopting an extravagant manner— by overcompensating if you will.

Alas, though Sarah Rutan is a fine actress—loved her Phoebe in AYLI last year—I still couldn’t get my head around her obviously well-intentioned but (in my view) ultimately ill-conceived proto-feminist Desdemona. It came across to me as a bad case of “presentism”—of trying to shoehorn a postmodern standard of feminine strength into a character crafted around Elizabethan sensibilities. (A similar turn was attempted by Helena Bonham Carter with Ophelia in the Zefirelli film of Hamlet, and with a similarly non-sequitur result.) When Rutan’s heretofore defiant Desdemona suddenly went self-sacrificing in her last breath, I for one, didn’t believe it for a moment. (In other words, it was not coherent.)

[An aside: this is a knotty contemporary problem for the staging of a number of Shakespeare plays, perhaps most notably Merchant of Venice. For my taste, the most compelling reading is that of Imogen Stubbs, again in the Nunn Othello, who plays Desdemona not so much as a feminist as an idealist; perhaps a very naive young idealist at that. But I digress…]

But now again, Dan Donohue’s Iago.

I keep coming back to the word “coherent”. If there are fifty ways to leave a lover, there must be five-and-fifty ways to play this greatest of all villains in western literature—all of them, given the shape-shifting nature of this preternatural Trickster, potentially coherent. For instance, in recent decades the closeted homo-erotic homophobe has been a popular interpretation of Iago, and the text, methinks, can certainly bear that interpretation. (Branagh tried it in the Parker film, but without complete success, in my view.)

Ian McKellen as Iago in Trevor Nunn's OTHELLOThe great Ian McKellen, on the other hand, does a riveting Iago-as-Puritan/Nihilist turn in the Nunn production, and it proves most unsettling. (“When you look into the Abyss,” as Nietzsche so famously put it, “the Abyss looks into you.” Yikes.)

Stephen HemmingHowever, my own favorite interpretation of Iago has heretofore been that of the late great Stephen Hemming, who, until his untimely death in 1996 was one of the stars of the Milwaukee Rep and the American Players Theatre in Spring Green, Wisconsin. It was at the latter venue where I saw Hemming’s Iago, portrayed as a sort of joyously diabolic Actor and Director; an Auteur really, calling on all the divinities of hell to help him stage his great Tragedy, just because…well, just because he could. This APT performance affected me so deeply that I halfway built a novel around it, and even wrote it into a scene in a chapter entitled, “The Green-Eyed Monster”. Here’s what I wrote:

Upon arrival, James and Lupe parked the Jeep in one of the garssy lots at the bottom of the hill and climbed the sandstone gravel path to the theatre. The open-air auditorium, with its rustic multi-level stage, built entirely of graying wood, was lit by high-powered lamps atop plank towers that rose in back of the stage. Settling into their weathered seats, they scanned the horizon for approaching weather—several performances, James had heard, had already been rained out this month. But the stars shone clearly against a backdrop of sky darkening from blue to ebony, and finally the houselights dimmed. A shaft of spotlight slanted down, transforming the rural Wisconsin stage into the midnight streets of Renaissance Venice.

The production, James thought with an appreciation born from considerable personal experience, was clean and energetic, and the leads were impressive. The Iago in particular was both brilliant and unsettling, giving the enthralled audience an unnerving portrayal of the famous villain’s fetching combination of cunning and needfulness, of ribald joie-de-vivre and truth-telling, truth-twisting voyeurism—so much so that by the time the stage lamps faded on the inevitable fifth-act scene of carnage, and the audience was making its murmuring way down to the parking lot in the haloed glimmer of pathway lights, the only thing James could remember clearly about the production was the actor’s chillingly light-hearted reading of Iago’s most famous line: I am not what I am.

(The Mystery of Things, by Debra Murphy)

Anyhow, now for something completely different.

Dan Donohue’s Iago is completely different than my beloved Hemming’s was. Also equally compelling, and now up there as one of my two favorite Iagos.

Where the mysterious motivations of Hemming’s Iago could be said to fall into that class of “motiveless malignity” made famous by Coleridge’s Preface, there’s nothing motiveless or particularly mysterious about Donohue’s interpretation. Yes, he plays wonderfully with the Iago-as-auteur notion in the opening scene, when his stage business with the hapless Roderigo beneath Brabantio’s balcony resembles nothing so much as an ornery symphony conductor cueing a recalcitrant second violinist; but for the greater part of the play Donohue’s Ensign is nothing more—and nothing less (a truly terrible thing)—than a man so consumed by jealousy, even the possibility of reason for jealousy, that he cannot rest a moment until he has upended the peace of everyone in his circumference. He’s like one of those quasi-terrorist plague victims one hears about on rare occasions, from the Black Death of the fourteenth century to AIDS in the twentieth, whose only solace, before he dies his own horrible death, is to infect as many other people with the disease, whatever it may be, as he possibly can. Perhaps just so he will no longer feel so terribly alone.

In other words, though Donohue’s Iago is still the smartest guy in the room (as he must be if Shakespeare’s plot is to be believed) he’s also, tragically, tragically, completely human. One need not posit some malevolent über-Spirit to explain this guy.

My favorite moment in this production comes in Act II, scene 1, when, just after Desdemona’s triumphant arrival in Cyprus, and the love between Othello and Desdemona is at its apex, Donohue’s Iago first unpacks his tormented soul to the audience. Indeed, he comes near to retching on stage at the mere thought that Othello has cuckolded him. Donohue gives this speech a weight and rhythm and momentum, like a pounding drum, which is as horrifying as it is irresistible, and it becomes the pivot-point of the play:

That Cassio loves her, I do well believe it;
That she loves him, ’tis apt and of great credit:
The Moor, howbeit that I endure him not,
Is of a constant, loving, noble nature,
And I dare think he’ll prove to Desdemona
A most dear husband. Now, I do love her too;
Not out of absolute lust, though peradventure
I stand accountant for as great a sin,
But partly led to diet my revenge,
For that I do suspect the lusty Moor
Hath leap’d into my seat; the thought whereof
Doth, like a poisonous mineral, gnaw my inwards;
And nothing can or shall content my soul
Till I am even’d with him, wife for wife,

I swear, the temperature in the Elizabethan dropped ten degrees in the space of about three minutes.

Folks, it just don’t get much better on stage than that.

Categories: State of Jefferson & the Pacific Northwest.


  1. Yes!!! I’ve seen it three times now, and I confess I’ve been wracking my brains for excuses (can I stop buying groceries for a few weeks, maybe? A month-long fast, perhaps!!) for possibly buying yet another ticket before the season is out….Donohue’s Iago, though I loved it from the first, has crept up on me so much ~ and so disturbed me ~ that it is undoubtedly my favorite interpretation. Agreed: for him, jealousy is not merely an excuse for just having a grand time messing up everyone’s lives for some heady, vague, perhaps ultimately motiveless delight: no. He IS the green-eyed monster; he is Jealousy Itself; he is hate, and corruption, and Death. A tortured villain, on the rack ~ and he puts the whole audience there with him … but how we love it! (And how we will miss Mr. Donohue in 2009!)

  2. Dan

    This is a fine panoramic view of the various ways that Iago can be interpreted and played. It’s one of the unending fascinations of Shakespeare’s great characters: so many darn possibilities!

    It does seem to me that Donohue’s Iago is sinned against, at least in his own mind. That reality or perception of being wronged creates a righteous determination to be righted: “even’d with him, wife for wife.”

    The now-famous “banality of evil” pertains here. Is it possible for a person to succumb to jealousy that destroys his inner life and then the lives of so many around him?

    The ordinariness of this particular motive, writ large in Donohue’s Iago, stuns me with horror. Perhaps more horrible than the motiveless malignity that is evil per se.

    Don’t miss Donohue’s Iago! His jealousy, indeed, takes on the proportions of a plague.

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