“Othello” is inarguably one of Shakespeare’s most compelling tales, what with its ambitious outsider Othello, his bewitching-but-innocent wife, Desdemona, and duplicitous ally Iago, all simmering in a toxic stew of jealousy and mistrust.
Washington audiences are about to get an extra helping: Next week, two theaters open their own productions of “Othello” just a day apart: Folger Theatre will plant the Moor of Venice in the turmoil of the Crusades, thereby shifting one of the central themes of the story from race to religion. And Synetic Theater will strip down its “Othello,” remounting a 2010 production that is not only sexed-up but also performed without a single word. We look at how the two stack up.
Folger Theatre: How do you view “Othello” with a fresh perspective? Folger’s director, Robert Richmond, sets the show during the Crusades, emphasizing Othello’s background not just as a Moor, but as a Muslim. “He’s a Moor who’s found redemption through Christianity . . . he’s the best, most devout, most stoic of all the knights,” says Richmond. All of which, the director explains, offers Iago a new motive to carry out his devastating plot to divide Othello and his wife. “Placing the play in this particular world, in this particular century,” Richmond says, “there is a fear and mistrust of the ‘other.’ [Iago] is actually against the Moor for reasons that are much bigger than his personal reasons.”