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In a dazzling 'Othello,' Iago is wickedly good

The name of the play is ''Othello," but the character who makes this one of Shakespeare's most popular dramas is Iago, and the success of most productions lies in the talents of the actor who plays him.

And you'll have to travel long and far to see a better Iago than Jonathan Epstein at Boston Theatre Works. It's a performance in a class with Christopher Plummer's, Kenneth Branagh's, and Simon Russell Beale's.

This is Epstein's second tour of duty with Boston Theatre Works, and if you couldn't hear his Prospero last year in the acoustically challenged Cyclorama at the Boston Center for the Arts, you won't have that problem this year in the much more suitable BCA Plaza Theatre next door. Every evil word is crisp and clear, as pointed as the dagger Iago sticks in several of those characters careless enough not to watch their backs.

This season, the former mainstay of Shakespeare & Company (before a falling out in Lenox) has a scintillating production surrounding him. This is far and away the best work I've seen from Jason Slavick, who also directed BTW's disappointing ''The Tempest" and ''Antony and Cleopatra."

Here Slavick takes more of a chamber approach. On the small stage, a smartly utilized black bench sits in front of black panels that open onto a blue sky. By play's end, those panels, designed by Zeynep Bakkal, will have swung shut, the backdrop turning to red.

That may not sound particularly subtle, but this is a wonderfully understated production. Three of Epstein's fellow actors are from Shakespeare & Company -- Tony Molina as Othello, Susanna Apgar as Desdemona, and Elizabeth Aspenlieder as Emilia. Trey Burvant, who shone in ''Last Sunday in June" by SpeakEasy Stage Company two seasons ago, continues to impress as Cassio.

This ''Othello" is as thoughtful as it is clear. Slavick and company resist black-and-white characterizations. Epstein's Iago is a ''demi-devil," a character who sees others getting ahead on slickness while his virtues go unnoticed. You can see his like in every corporation in America.

And though his victims don't deserve their fate, they are a little too slick for their own good, and the actors are particularly adept at bringing out their Achilles' heels. Molina's Othello is too self-satisfied to recognize that Iago means to do him harm. Burvant's Cassio is a ladies' man who lusts rather openly for Desdemona and Iago's wife, Emilia. And Apgar's Desdemona parades her sexuality flirtatiously (with help from Rachel Padula Shufelt's low-cut costuming). Meanwhile, Aspenlieder's Emilia realizes too late what harm her devotion to Iago has done to both her and Desdemona.

Molina can be both gentle and gruff, never looking to shake the rafters James Earl Jones style. He's very much in command of Othello's emotions, even as the character loses control of his.

But this is Epstein's show. His machinations, along with his asides to the audience, produced some gasps at Sunday's matinee. Shifting between self-confidence and self-doubt, Epstein's Iago is bad to the bone. He knows how to please a person to his face and dispense what sounds like solid wisdom while giving him the finger when his back is turned.

But even while we damn Iago for what he's doing, perhaps there's a part of us that can relate to his sense that the less deserving have gotten ahead in work and romance. Can we share in the ugliness that he feels because of the beauty in other people's lives?

Slavick takes some liberty with the language, and some elements of the production are distracting. What is on the patches of those contemporary military uniforms? Elephants? The Acropolis?

But when everything else works so splendidly, who cares? Epstein, in particular, makes us want to go with the Shakespearean flow. Even when it turns blood red.

Ed Siegel can be reached at

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