What makes Iago seethe? The eternal mystery of his mortal loathing of Othello isn’t totally cracked in Folger Theatre’s impressive, compulsively watchable staging of the tragedy. But in Ian Merrill Peakes’s portrayal of Shakespeare’s most captivating villain, one comes tantalizingly close to grasping his rancid perspective.
That’s partly because the highly accomplished Peakes — one of the finest Shakespearean actors regularly appearing in Washington — is so darn charming. More importantly, though, it is Peakes’s acumen for seeming to live moment to moment on a stage, his gift for revealing a character who can think on his feet as fleetly as he stays three steps ahead of everyone else, that allows him to excel whenever he portrays a complex classical personage, whether it’s Macbeth or Henry VIII or Angelo of “Measure for Measure.”
The best Iagos do this and, as in all such cases, the completeness of the performance helps to minimize some of the vexing narrative issues that “Othello” presents for contemporary audiences, even in a production as sturdy as the one director Robert Richmond constructs at Folger. Although Owiso Odera does nicely by Othello, conveying the imperiousness, swagger and insecurity of the warrior who beds chaste Desdemona (a fetching Janie Brookshire), neither he nor Richmond is able to make convincing that peculiar moment when Othello must turn on a dime from devoted husband to paranoid vengeance-seeker.