While he comes closer to pure evil than anyone else in Shakespeare, the villain in Othello is often called within the play itself "honest Iago." Even as he's trapping all the other characters, dooming them to die in his revenge plot, he is ever revered. "This fellow's of exceeding honesty," says Othello, the target of Iago's revenge, "and knows all qualities, with a learned spirit, of human dealings."
That might illuminate director Jasson Minadakis' decision to cast Craig Marker in the villain's role for Marin Theatre Company's current production — the company's first foray into Shakespeare. In every role he plays, Marker is earnest, disarming, and natural. He looks as at ease on the stage as if he were in his own living room. So his Iago, telling Othello "I am much to blame; I humbly beseech you of your pardon for too much loving you," is no mustache-twirling villain. Nor is he a subtle one whose apparent candor is inflected with sinister tinges obvious to the audience but not to the characters.
No, his Iago is every bit as natural as his Gentlemen Caller in MTC's fall production of The Glass Menagerie. He is good will embodied, hoodwinking the audience as easily as he does the characters. Even his famous line "I hate the Moor" reeks not of twisted malice but of righteous anger. At the end of the play, when asked if he has lied during his undoing of Othello's world, Iago responds "I told what I thought, and told no more than what [Othello] found himself was apt and true" — and, here, you can't help but believe him.
It's a bold interpretation, and one that redefines the play's central relationships. In Marker's rendering, Iago is often more likable than Othello is — not that the Moor, played here by Aldo Billingslea, is especially sympathetic. Othello begins the play an underdog, as a mercenary general for Venice, respected for his brutality on the battlefield but ostracized for his race in society. His secret marriage to Desdemona (Mairin Lee), a much younger noblewoman "of spirit so still and quiet that her motion blush'd at herself" is a scandal — one Iago can take advantage of when Othello passes him over for a promotion on the eve of the troops' deployment to the isle of Cyprus. Billingslea is the picture of calm when he must defend his marriage from interference by the Venetian senate — his flowing white robes, folded hands, and measured, almost musical voice give him a clerical air. Saying, "Rude am I in my speech, and little bless'd with the soft phrase of peace," he is, ironically, the most rational and articulate man in the room. And in love, he and Desdemona radiate sweetness and innocence, the actors' contrasting sizes — he can pick her up as if she were a doll — making them look like each other's playthings.
Of course, he's all too ready to bid "farewell the tranquil mind" when Iago plants a seed of doubt about Desdemona's fidelity. That's the central challenge facing any actor playing Othello: how to make credible an abrupt transition from marital bliss to violent jealousy. Why is Othello so ready to take Iago at his word? Why are "trifles as light as air" like "confirmations strong as proofs of holy writ"? Why not ask his wife about his suspicion before he's about to kill her?
Billingslea, unfortunately, never fully answers these questions. Even as he slams his surroundings or lurks menacingly in eerie orange lights (courtesy of designer Kurt Landisman), his rage feels like an engine that's straining for fuel. Lee as Desdemona offers little help, her reactions to Othello's outbursts reading more like mild disappointment than deep wounds.
Minadakis has cut the play to center on Iago, who is onstage for most of the show's two and a half hours. His soliloquies, in which he confesses his thoughts and devises his schemes, anchor the play. When he doesn't get the play's last word, the breakneck, action-packed proceedings almost feel unfinished. Perhaps Minadakis's production, rather than Othello, the Moor of Venice, would more aptly be called Iago, the Bad Guy You Wish Were Good.