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Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’ brings forth thoughts of Rahm and Barack and even Karl

• “Othello” by William Shakespeare and directed by Kent Thompson.
• “Mariela In The Desert” by Karen Zacarias and directed by Bruce K. Sevy, with original music composed by Bruce Coffin. Playing through May 1 and May 15 at the DCPA.

Kent Thompson’s muscular production of “Othello” does more than justice to Shakespeare’s tale of a venal underling’s manipulation of his boss. Robert Jason Jackson plays the Moorish general who has risen through the ranks to command a Venetian army. He has passed over Iago, played with a feral intensity by John Hutton, for promotion, in favor of a younger officer, the handsome Cassio. Iago is determined to reverse this evident slight and commences to weave a web of deceits that soon ensnare Othello in a jealous mistrust of his young bride, Desdemona. The bard’s plot is so familiar that virtually everyone in the audience is aware of the tragic consequences that will ensue.

In most stagings of this show, you can’t help wondering why the Moor is such a dunce — so willing to believe the dubious claims advanced by the “honest” Iago. After all, the lovely Desdemona has resisted her family’s wishes, social propriety and wagging tongues at court in unanimous opposition to her marriage. Why would he question her loyalty? Thompson and Jackson provide an answer that is both troubling and revealing. Othello suffers so many demands on his time that he simply can’t pay attention to his emotional responsibilities, personal or otherwise — his perception of reality is shaped entirely by those he trusts, those with access.

Although the comparison is unfair in many respects, I couldn’t escape thoughts of Rahm Emanuel and Barack Obama. Hutton and Emanuel share the same lupine ferocity. Iago is only motivated in part by revenge. Once he moves Cassio out of the way, with Desdemona as collateral damage, he sincerely believes his commander will be better served with the faithful Iago back at his side. At some level, so must Othello. Whether the consigliere is a Karl Rove or a Rahm Emanuel, the potential for mischief is immense when a subordinate confuses his own advice with the goals of his leader. Something as true today as it was 400 years ago when Shakespeare set pen to paper.

Karen Zacarias’ “Mariela In The Desert” transports its audience to a small ranch in the vast, empty Sonoran desert of northern Mexico, circa 1950. Mariela and Jose Salvatierra are artistic contemporaries of the great Mexican muralists and artists of the 1920s and 30s — Orozco, Siqueiros, Tamayo and the immortal pairing of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. Their hope for this refuge from Mexico City was to attract their more famous contemporaries to work in an artistic commune that captured the qualities of “God’s canvas.” In fact, they find themselves in a self-imposed exile with their two children, Blanca and Carlos, a seemingly autistic child prone to fits of head banging.

Vicki Smith’s austere set design includes a transparent back wall that allows the audience to look out across the seemingly endless desert landscape. Jose is a minor luminary of the Mexican Renaissance, slowly succumbing to the ravages of diabetes. Mariela is the student bride who accompanied him into the desert at the expense of her own artistic yearnings. Their daughter, Blanca, has fled to Mexico City, taken up with a Jewish American professor, and Carlos has vanished in some tragic disappearance that is never fully explained. In short, this is another dysfunctional family with secrets that are revealed without seeming surprising.

While the script feels predictable at times, Bruce Sevy has assembled a gifted cast that breathes life into what could readily dissolve into a Telenovela soap opera. Yetta Gottesman holds the show together with a muted demonstration of resilience as the long-suffering Mariela. She is capably assisted by Franca Sofia Barchiesi who provides the few moments of humor as Jose’s sister, the crazy old maid aunt in the attic. If you haven’t guessed the truth about a slashed painting covered with a mourning cloth in the family living room before the characters gets around to informing you, then you must not be paying attention. Oddly, even when the story becomes obvious or formulaic, it still remains compelling.

Miller Hudson, a Denver Democrat, is a connoisseur of the performing arts and a political player.