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Theater Review - Lying liar

Going for a leaner, meaner Othello

With complete sincerity, a playhouse could market Othello not just as one of Shakespeare's major plays, but as a timeless master class in the art of lying and a sure-fire means to assist ambitious executives and straying spouses in their conniving ways.

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Georgia Shakespeare's production offers a textbook case as scheming Iago (John G. Preston), a kind of honorary professor of prevarication, tricks noble Othello (Brandon J. Dirden) into believing that his innocent, beloved wife, Desdemona (Park Krausen), has been unfaithful. Iago's carefully constructed falsehoods teach by example: Prey on your victim's weak points, cultivate a baseless reputation for honesty and make a show of painful reluctance to reveal your sneaky goal.

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"I had rather have this tongue cut from my mouth / Than it should do offense to Michael Cassio," Iago admits under "duress."

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Both hissably evil and strangely fascinating, Iago generates compelling drama as he stage-manages a domestic tragedy and improvises upon unexpected twists. Othello's villain nearly always upstages the title role (the Laurence Fishburne/Kenneth Branagh film offers a recent example), as is the case with Georgia Shakespeare's intimate, idiosyncratic production directed by Vinnie Murphy and adapted by its leading man.

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Dirden's version of Othello combines some roles, eliminates others and compresses scenes until the play, which can feature up to 20 speaking parts, requires only six actors. Joe Knezevich plays Iago's primary dupe, the stalwart but naive Cassio. Kate Donadio charmingly takes on the other female roles (which, in this reading, includes the Duke of Venice), and Chris Kayser fields the rest. Theaters have financial motivations for reducing the size of their casts, especially in sprawling Shakespeare shows, and PushPush Theater is currently staging Much Ado About Nothing with seven players.

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Perhaps more than any other of Shakespeare's major plays, Othello suits a stripped-down approach, since so much of the play consists of hushed conversations and back-alley ambushes between a handful of roles. This sparseness works against the production for about a half hour or so, as the public discovery of Othello and Desdemona's secret marriage, and later Othello's military triumph, could use more pageantry and bustle to convey the worlds of the play. The action picks up marvelously, however, once Iago begins spinning his web in earnest.

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Krausen's Desdemona conveys the touchy-feely liveliness of a cheerful young woman who'd attract male admirers like the proverbial flame attracts moths. Paired with Dirden's Othello, they make a happy, erotic couple that doesn't stand a chance against Iago's trickery.

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Dirden's youth, however, plays against Othello's traits as a well-traveled general. As Othello turns insanely jealous, Dirden seems more anguished than threatening, and we don't fear for Desdemona's or Iago's lives as much as we should.

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The script begins with Iago's "I hate the Moor" speech and his belief that Othello has slept with Iago's wife Emelia — suspicions that seem merely like Iago's most convenient excuse for doing evil. Preston gives Iago a playful nastiness as he confides his plans in asides. He even grins and bounces with boyish enthusiasm when his plot begins to work, and the audience laughs knowingly at any reference to "honest Iago" throughout the show.

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With fewer actors, Vinnie Murphy's production uses other techniques to fill the performing space. Frequently the show emphasizes stark, looming shadows, at which tormented characters at times stare, as if trying to recognize themselves in the distorted image of a fun-house mirror. The space also echoes with haunted-houses hisses and erotic moans, which sound more contrived. The production's synthesized music and sound effects prove tinny and distracting — a horn of warning sounds like a car alarm on the fritz.

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Georgia Shakespeare's Othello makes luxuriant use of fabric, from Krausen's and Donadio's navel-flashing dresses to the scarlet sheets that provide Desdemona's bedding as well as her shroud. The production's sensuality suits a play that builds toward a crime of passion. Iago's delight in deception, however, teaches us that wallowing in wickedness may be the biggest rush of all.