The Venetian court has assembled to hear charges that Othello dares to love Desdemona, much to her father’s protest. Then the lady, called to address this issue, appears in a gown of Virgin Mary blue against a palette of somber earth tones — as if she were a vision of Renaissance art.
The moment flees in Marion McClinton’s production of “Othello” at the Guthrie Theater, yet it lingers as an emblem of the director’s old-school sensibility. McClinton paints the cunning and the heartbreak of this Shakespeare tragedy with confident strokes of tradition. It may sound odd, but in this age of Shakespeare Off The Wall it is worth saying: McClinton trusts the intrinsic power of the piece and that trust is rewarded.
This lean and muscular staging ripples across Marjorie Bradley Kellogg’s elemental stage design of stone floors and an azure horizon. Peter Macon’s Othello seems almost invincible — his size and voice so imposing and his manner so honorable. Yet he frolics and melts like a merry schoolchild in the presence of Tracy Maloney’s Desdemona. She is the Moor’s delight, a jewel that radiates her own beauty and reflects his vulnerability.
It is, of course, Othello’s devotion to sweet Desdemona that stirs the evil machinations of Stephen Yoakam’s conniving Iago. This villain puts the pebble of jealousy in the great hero’s boot and then watches as Othello destroys himself and his beloved.
Yoakam and Macon play their roles with fierce machismo, as two men who forged an eternal bond of trust in warfare. Yoakam’s Iago carries a steel edge — not so much a clever manipulator as he is a brilliant bully. His voice can soothe but his body and intentions cut the air with menace.
Macon finds the warrior’s full rage, the mind clouded by his heart. McClinton’s conception of these two — clad in costumes by Esosa that accent power — conveys a toughness. These are men’s men, smart and cagey. Both live by their thumping id, a condition that Iago abuses to his own ends.
Similarly, John Catron’s Cassio bristles with an air of pride and honor. Kris L. Nelson’s Roderigo is more a weak-willed dupe and his character suffers for it.
The genius of McClinton’s unapologetic air of masculinity reveals itself in the pained perorations of Regina Marie Williams’ Emilia, who is the conscience of this tragedy. With Desdemona — the innocent and heartbreakingly beautiful Maloney — lying dead because of the vicious stink of testosterone that infected both Iago and Othello, Williams delivers a scorching condemnation of Iago and the stupid, silly games that men play.
The look of this staging, enhanced by Michael Wangen’s lighting scheme and Esosa’s gowns for the women, is visceral. It is, however, not the most easily understood verbal rendition of “Othello” you will ever hear.
Some speakers, such as Raye Birk’s Brabantio, are flawless but it’s occasionally frustrating in the Guthrie thrust theater that words are lost when a character turns away. At intermission, several folks were asking each other, “Can you understand it?”
Not always, but “Othello” is a play that should strike the belly through its imagery, passion and tension. And on those terms, McClinton has crafted an old-fashioned classic.