Free For All “Othello”

Through Aug. 27 at The Shakespeare Theatre Company

It is stark. It is cathartic. It is Shakespeare, as alive today as his work was when written, over four centuries ago. And it is “free,” this stunning, mesmerizing production of Shakespeare’s tragedy of love and jealousy, betrayal and deception, murder and atonement, “Othello,” which is staged at the Washington Shakespeare Company’s Sidney Harman Hall through Aug. 27.

Since 1991, first outdoors at Carter Barron Amphitheater, and now indoors, the 27th annual “Free For All” gives everyone the chance to experience this hauntingly timeless play at no charge. It is an opportunity to be grasped for its relevance today, in our time of Islamophobia and fear of “The Other,” whether Muslim or immigrant or woman. All that’s needed to enter the online lottery, or wait in line at the theater (610 F St. NW) on the date of performance for one of the several hundred free tickets.

Set in 16th Century Venice but mostly in Cyprus, Othello is a “Moor.” He is clearly a dark-skinned man from North Africa or the Near East, exotic and charismatic. Yet, he is also driven by insecurity that he is not truly accepted by a society that has picked him to be a general of the Venetian army seeking to defeat the Turks, then on the march against the Christian West. When he dares to elope with the much younger Desdemona, the fair-skinned daughter of a Venetian senator, he crosses the racial line into “miscegenation.” As a result, he falls victim finally to the evil plotting of his military subordinate Iago.

Iago burns with hatred over perceived slights and jealousy of his own. Harboring what has been termed “motiveless malignancy,” he plants seeds of doubt in Othello’s mind over whether his young bride has been unfaithful. Once planted, they flower into murders. Othello strangles Desdemona in her bed. Then, he dies at his own hand while Iago silently cowers.

The relevance for today is remarkable. The play is a stewpot of the racist imagination, as well as misogyny. Othello is depicted as an “old black ram … tupping” his white bride, “making the beast with two backs,” a savagely sensual outsider. But as the play begins, he is calm and reasoned and eloquent – a self-made assimilated outsider. What follows is his downfall into a monster bent on revenge and murder. The play, however, ends on a hopeful note when Othello spares Iago’s life.

Directed with skill by Ron Daniels, the play stars Pakistani-American Faran Tahir, who is well matched with Jay Whittaker as Iago. The two together are haunting in their depiction of men, one evil in to the core, another whose evil is the product of scheming and baseless credulity. As Desdemona, Madeleine Rogers shines as a loving wife. Yet despite this, she falls tragic victim to a general suspicion of women as untrustworthy. Given last Fall’s election, this might be a trope of our own time.

David Hoffman lives four blocks from City Dogs and wishes he had one! He is a freelance journalist covering the arts and entertainment as well as politics and foreign and defense policy. He is vice president for programs at the Woman's National Democratic Club, founded by suffragettes in 1922, where men are also active members.