As The Gift Theatre makes clear in its modern, stripped-down production of William Shakespeare's "Othello," something more than jealousy and racial prejudice fuel this tragedy. It's Othello's own insecurity that accelerates his downward spiral into madness, and ultimately murder.
Within Shakespeare's tragic hero are many men, including the battle-tested warrior, whose prowess is reflected in Kareem Bandealy's sinewy appearance and quietly authoritative demeanor. There is Othello the outsider (a politely politic Bandealy), the Moor who endures not-so-subtle slurs from Venetians who tolerate him because he defends their city. And there is Othello the lover, who is undone partly because he cannot believe his loyal wife Desdemona (the forthright, fresh-faced Brittany Burch) truly loves him.
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"Othello"★ ★ ★
Location: Gift Theatre, 4802 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago. (773) 283-7071 or thegifttheatre.org
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Thursday to Saturday; 2:30 p.m. Sunday through Aug. 24
Running time: About two hours, 45 minutes with intermission
Parking: Metered street parking nearby
Rating: For mature audiences
That self-doubt affords master manipulator Iago (the intriguing Michael Patrick Thornton) the advantage. From the shadows lighting designer Sarah Hughey creates in this murkily lit production, Iago recognizes Othello's self-doubt and exploits it, by first planting and then stoking Othello's unfounded suspicions about Desdemona's fidelity.
Thornton's Iago has a kind of casual villainy, as if for him, ruining lives were some kind of sport. When Thornton, who uses a wheelchair, sits before the audience laying out his devastating schemes, he could be talking about the weather. He's that nonchalant, even to his last speech, which Thornton concludes with an oddly satisfied smile.
Everyone in the audience sees that smile, thanks to The Gift's intimate Jefferson Park storefront, where the action unfolds just a few feet away from patrons. It's one of the advantages of director Jonathan Berry's informal, resourcefully staged production that also includes several humorous moments. (My favorite involves Desdemona's kinsmen, armed with golf clubs, seeking Othello to punish him for violating her honor).
The first Shakespeare play in the company's 13-year history, this is an intense, energetic production featuring some fine performances, despite occasional problems with diction that made some dialogue unintelligible.
But the nuanced performances of Berry's cast make up for it. Through the subtle, fleeting changes in Burch's expression we track Desdemona's transformation from guilelessness to bewilderment to stunned comprehension at the extent of her husband's anger. The stooped shoulders of Gabriel Franken's Roderigo -- the easily-duped dandy Iago uses to advance his plot -- suggests a man who hasn't realized he's already defeated. Jay Worthington's Cassio, Othello's falsely accused lieutenant, and Darci Nalepa's Emilia, unwitting accomplice to Desdemona's undoing, also deserve mention.
But it's Bandealy's Othello -- his body fit and his goatee flecked with gray -- who grabs us by the shoulders and never lets go as we watch his self-containment give way to rage. His transformation from reined-in soldier to enraged spouse reflects an actor in his prime. Kudos.
And kudos to The Gift, who took 13 years to stage a Shakespeare play. Here's hoping that it will not make us wait that long for the next one.