The stage of African-American Shakespeare Company’s “Othello” comes most alive when L. Peter Callender, in the title role of the Moorish army general, and Michael Ray Wisely as his secret enemy, Iago, are on it together. In those scenes, it’s thrilling to watch the interplay of these two consummate actors.
This is a modern-dress version of Shakespeare’s tragedy, set in Venice and Cyprus, about love, jealousy, misogyny and (to attach a contemporary name to it) racism. It’s minimally cut and adapted, with some anachronistic language thrown in judiciously, by director Carl Jordan and company artistic director Callender.
Callender seems born to play this role. The character’s explosive emotional life exudes from his very pores. He has an almost animal-like physicality that’s electrifying to watch, especially in a scene in which he collapses in an epileptic seizure. This Othello, played with a melodious (presumably North African) accent, is at the mercy of his bodily impulses.
In contrast, Wisely’s Iago — the conniving sergeant who’s infuriated that Othello has promoted Cassio (a soft-spoken Ariel Sandino) above him — is a subtle, cerebral performance, and varied in its moods and its moments of icy intensity (“I hate the Moor,” Iago announces several times, and it’s chilling).
Wisely’s a good enough actor to find infinite varieties of nuance in the role, from humor to deadly rage. As he persuades Othello that his new wife, Desdemona, has been unfaithful to him with Cassio, Wisely is so convincing, and Callender so emotionally labile, that, melodramatic as it all is, it feels believable and inevitable.
The cast is uneven, though. As Desdemona, Isabel Siragusa is at first fetchingly coquettish and youthful, but in the drama’s second half, she’s not up to the challenges of fully expressing her anguish.
But Gabriel Ross has some strong moments as the hapless Roderigo, who’s enamored of Desdemona, and Champagne Hughes as Emilia (Iago’s wife and Desdemona’s servant and confidante) comes into her own, fierce and defiant, in the final scenes.
Director Jordan has wisely avoided set changes. The stage features two (probably unnecessary) framework structures, and that’s basically it. And Jordan has added a few voiceovers to move the narration along, plus a bit of contemporary song and dance, plus (once again, unnecessary) ambient background music in some scenes.
The action throughout is swift and forceful, and some of the fight scenes, choreographed by Durand Garcia, are particularly well done. This is a thoroughly engrossing “Othello.”
Presented by African-American Shakespeare Company
Where: Marines Memorial Theatre, 609 Sutter St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays; through Oct. 27
Contact: (415) 762-2071, african-americanshakes.org