CAMBRIDGE — Because questions of race and gender sit squarely at the center of “Othello,’’ watching it in 2019 offers a reminder of Shakespeare’s eternal relevance, that perpetually astonishing way his plays manage to seem torn from any era’s headlines as well as from the fathomless depths of the human soul.
Those dual qualities of timeliness and timelessness are underscored by Bill Rauch’s sinewy and bracingly fast-moving production of “Othello,’’ which is driven by Chris Butler’s masterly performance in the title role and a portrayal of Iago by Danforth Comins that is very nearly as impressive. Arriving at the American Repertory Theater after an earlier run at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, this “Othello’’ is set in the present day, complete with cellphones, laptops, and a health club where TV sets line the wall.
Rauch is far from the first director to update the physical setting of a Shakespeare drama while keeping the text intact. Theatergoers long ago adjusted to the sight and sound of characters in contemporary garb spouting high-flown Elizabethan verse and espousing jarringly anachronistic notions such as, for instance, the idea that a man might be justified in exacting lethal retribution on a wife he suspected of infidelity.
But there’s no missing the resonance for our time in the collateral damage that is caused by the racism and sexism that pervades “Othello.’’ The tragedy here is not just domestic but societal as, on pretty flimsy “evidence,’’ Iago persuades Othello that Desdemona (Alejandra Escalante) has betrayed him with his lieutenant, Cassio (Derek Garza). Rauch pointedly underlines the idea of collective culpability by having the ensemble set the stage, quite literally, for “Othello’s’’ terrible culmination. It’s a haunting scene. Before that climactic moment, however, Escalante’s portrayal of doomed Desdemona needs to be sharper and more vivid.
There’s no shortage of vividness in the portrait Butler forges of the complicated, flawed, larger-than-life Othello. At times, Butler’s Othello brings to mind the volatile subject of an earlier Rauch production that featured a man who was also complicated, flawed, and larger-than-life and was also the protagonist of a play that dealt centrally with race: Lyndon B. Johnson. In the Bryan Cranston-starring “All the Way,’’ presented at the ART and later on Broadway, LBJ acquired a kind of tragic grandeur as he fought to pass civil rights legislation. But while Cranston’s LBJ could use his position of power to pull legislative levers and manipulate others to achieve his goal, the cultural deck is stacked against Butler’s Othello, and he is the one being manipulated. Even though Venice relies upon Othello’s military prowess (he’s an admiral here rather than a general) for protection, his otherness and outsider status are established well before Butler speaks his first lines.
The deck is also stacked against the women in the play, who are treated as expendable amid the machinations of men: Not just Desdemona but also Iago’s wife, Emilia (Amy Kim Waschke, very good), and, to a lesser extent, Bianca (Rainbow Dickerson), who is besotted with Cassio but is treated callously by him.
Coleridge famously wrote of Iago’s “motiveless malignity,’’ but Iago’s racism sure seems like a motive in this production (along with his suspicion that Othello and Emilia had an affair and his anger at being passed over by Othello for a promotion). Racist descriptions of Othello fly freely in the opening scene between Iago and a doltish Venetian, Roderigo (Stephen Michael Spencer), who becomes one of Iago’s unwitting instruments in his sly campaign to destroy Othello. After Othello and Desdemona marry, her enraged father, a senator named Brabantio (Richard Howard), insists that the only way she would run to “the sooty bosom of such a thing as thou’’ was if Othello employed “foul charms’’ on her. Throughout the play, white characters frequently address Othello not by his name but as “Moor.’’
A measure of the strength of Butler’s performance as Othello is that the actor is as compelling in the admiral’s moments of irresolution, when he wages an internal battle with his conscience and his love for Desdemona and comes close to sparing her, as he is in Othello’s towering fury and jealousy.
Apart from his ability to deliver such an expertly layered performance, Comins is an interesting physical choice to play Iago: He’s a strapping guy, more a leading man type than what we might think of as scheming-underling type, perhaps suggesting the kind of establishment entitlement that confronts Othello. Director Rauch sometimes trains the spotlight only on Comins, darkening the rest of the stage, when Iago confides his malevolent designs to us in the audience. The other characters in the play often praise him with encomiums like “honest Iago,’’ but the only truly honest thing Iago says for the entire play is early on (when neither Othello nor Desdemona, unluckily for them, is there to hear it): “I am not what I am.’’
Play by William Shakespeare
Directed by Bill Rauch
Production by Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Presented by American Repertory Theater at Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge. Through Feb. 9. Tickets start at $25. 617-547-8300, americanrepertorytheater.orgDon Aucoin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter@GlobeAucoin