Part of the story that director James J. Christy is telling in his production of Othello for the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival is told through the design scheme (which, not incidentally, is gorgeous).
Christy and his designers (Will Neuert set, Deborah Rooney costumes, Robert A. Mond lighting) have set Shakespeare's domestic tragedy in the Napoleonic era. This is a time, appropriately, of international naval battles and expanding imperialist ambitions, often being waged on the fringes of Europe in North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean - the "Orient'' of the European imagination, which is both the home turf of the Europeanized blackamoor general Othello and the site of most of the play's action.
The clothes are trim, tailored and elegant, and the characters (and, moreover, the actors) know how to wear them. Desdemona (Susan McKey) appears before the Venetian Council in a royal blue high-waisted empire gown, and travels to Cyprus to accompany her new husband to battle in a smashing apricot-colored velvet coat and bonnet, accompanied by Emilia (Janis Dardaris) in a fashionable little turban. Othello's lieutenant Cassio (Greg Wood) looks dashing in his regimental brocaded coat, and looks equally smart in his cream-colored civvies after he loses his position due to Iago's machinations. The foppish suitor Roderigo (Ian Merrill Peakes) is smartly turned out in the latest stirrup trousers and pumps.
No one dresses more smartly, or wears clothes as well, as Othello himself (Aaron Cabell). With mustachios and sideburns, in a scarlet regimental coat and braids, white trousers, high-top black boots and dragoon's hat, he looks every bit like a hussar in a painting by Gericault. This Othello, despite his African origins, fits right in with the world of politics and the military in Venice. Every entrance is signalled by elaborate martial bugle calls, and at the slightest gesture his staff of officers and platoon of spit-and-polished soldiers snap to attention, draw their curving sabres, or shout out "huzzah!''
Christy is clearly setting up a transformation, as Othello moves from the crisp and ordered civilized world of Europe to Cyprus, with its fawning Ottomans in turbans and fezzes and its ululating women in spangles and veils. And, sure enough, Othello's journey into self-consuming jealousy and murder is marked by a stripping down and a change of costume. He has his epileptic fit while sitting naked in a marble bath tub (and recovers to speak his "Farewell the tranquil mind'' speech, transposed from an earlier scene). When he confronts Desdemona and accuses her of being a strumpet, he is in a caftan. And when he comes to her bed-chamber to strangle her, he is dressed as a sheik, with a full kefiah and a yataghan tucked into his embroidered sash, looking every bit like the African chieftain in that well-known nineteenth-century painting by Edouard Charlemont in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
So, is Christy saying something about Europe and the "Orient,'' about Christianity and Islam, about civilization and savagery? That Othello is losing his veneer of civility and reverting to his pagan roots? Or that Othello has stopped trying to "pass'' and is rediscovering his magnificent Muslim roots and identity?
Perhaps so. But while all this (in one combination or another) shouts out from the design scheme, none of it really gets played out in the characters and the relationships, nor in the acting.
Cabell has a natural confidence and easy authority, even when he sinks (or rises) into jealous passion. He is best when Iago has not yet convinced him of Desdemona's faithlessness, furious not at her but at the uncertainty of it all, and at himself for losing confidence in the boundaries (of love, of country, of identity) that had defined his life. (We hear a cello as his mind begins to turn). And his series of tragic discoveries at the end of the play are deeply moving, if not earthshattering.
McKey's Desdemona is a revelation. Forgoing any passivity or deference, this Desdemona is too intelligent to ingratiate herself to anyone (even a simple statement like "I am obedient'' is knowing and flirtatious). She deeply feels the loss of her husband's love (the scene in which she sings the "Willow'' song as she prepares for bed is remarkable for its haunting stillness, with wind chimes tinkling in the cold evening wind). But (like Dardaris's Emilia), she is too smart and too damned angry to go to her death without putting up a good fight.
By contrast, Michael Tylo plays Iago - the play's largest, most compelling, and potentially most dangerously scene-stealing role - as a gruff and growly military man with a riding crop, without charm, without subtlety, without any depth, and without much insight.
Like the production's design scheme, this Iago remains an abstraction, a set of glosses on what is otherwise a drama of deeply-felt emotions and complex relationships.