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STRATFORD, Ont. – Two historically controversial plays by William Shakespeare have opened, late-summer additions to an already acclaimed first season for Stratford artistic director Antoni Cimolino. “Othello” and “The Merchant of Venice,” both riveting and repellent, continue until mid-October. A brief look at the festival’s final two 2013 offerings:

A fast-moving ‘Othello’

The beautiful, porcelain Desdemona, much to the anguish of her father, has married the bold, brave and black commanding soldier, Othello the Moor. The future seems limitless, their love for each other obvious to all, a power couple in Venice, circa 1604.

Othello’s trusted lieutenant, Iago – along with Richard III, one of Shakespeare’s major villains – has other ideas. Iago has been passed over for promotion, Othello favoring the more even-tempered Michael Cassio. This slight triggers an Iago plot to poison the Othello-Desdemona bliss. Theater historians very often label Iago a psychopath, a charmer without a conscience, listing a litany of theories about his reasons to destroy his beloved boss. John Houseman settled on “motiveless malignity.”

“Othello’s” audiences are in on Iago’s schemes from the beginning. They, and the schemer, are amazed at how speedy the seeds of evil spread: “There are many events in the womb of time that shall be delivered,” he says. Iago doesn’t look the part of a snake. He’s handsome, not a Snidely Whiplash. He convinces without cackling.

Director Chris Abraham moves the tale along quickly. It’s too quickly perhaps, but historically, the time factor has always been a problem with “Othello.” The hero’s trips abroad and his return, the opportunities to plant the idea in Othello’s mind that his lovely wife is playing around with Cassio, all seem to happen in a matter of days. Theater time and real time. Suspending disbelief is necessary. So, the action is swift as Iago’s deviousness hatches. Othello buys into the lies and for all of his worldly wisdom soon turns into a dupe. A stolen Desdemona handkerchief planted in Cassio’s room seals the deal. A deranged Othello eventually strangles Desdemona – jealousy, that “green-eyed monster” fully at work, Emilia, her lady attendant, sums up the rampant deceit, maybe racial prejudice and loathsomeness: “Villainy, villainy, villainy!” Too late.

The cast is strong: a potent Dion Johnstone in the title role; Bethany Jillard, as Desdemona, full of premonition; Graham Abbey, startling, fascinating and scary, as Iago. The set, a raked, blood-red wonder, is by Julie Fox. Droning, foreboding sounds are joined by fury and storm, nature again disturbed by the stupidity of man.

theater review

Three and a half stars (Out of four)

What: “Othello”

Where: Avon Theatre, Stratford Festival

Through: Oct. 19

Info: www.stratfordfestival.ca

‘Merchant’ a play to think about

Gloomy Antonio, a merchant of Venice, surrounded by cafés and sipping cappuccino, nevertheless utters to anyone listening, “In sooth, I know not why I am so sad.”

In Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” Antonio is central, admired by his townsfolk for his business acumen and his considerable fortune. A friend, Bassanio, broke, wants to borrow some of his cash to impress the lovely Portia, well-off and just now trying to dodge a cadre of suitors.

Antonio’s fleet of ships literally hasn’t come in, so he strikes a deal with a local usurer, Shylock, whom he despises for his Jewishness. Shylock is a bitter man, scorned by his contemporaries, mocked and baited but he strikes a hard bargain. Sure, he says, you can have the money, with a caveat: If you can’t pay me back I can collect “a pound of flesh.” Antonio will soon learn why he should be feeling so glum.

“The Merchant of Venice,” back at Stratford and starring Scott Wentworth as Shylock (taking over for the ailing Brian Bedford), has generally been despised for centuries, its themes repulsive and unrelenting, a difficult play to perform and to watch.

It’s difficult to categorize, too. Some have called it a romantic comedy – there are many love affairs afoot, including Shylock’s daughter Jessica’s elopement with a Christian lad – but ethnic prejudice plays a major role in the double-crosses, thefts and kangaroo court justice that develop during this story that director Antoni Cimolino has set in pre-Fascist Italy. Shylock gets his day in court, but it ends in humiliation and questionable small-print settlement of his grievances. Few critics have ever doubted that bigotry was unintended by Shakespeare, but do agree that at least the sad moneylender, in the famous “Hath not a Jew eyes … if you prick us, do we not bleed?” speech is humanized.

In our post-Holocaust world, Shylock’s treatment in “Merchant” is hardly funny. As comedy, it’s a tough sell. Director Cimolino, by placing the story where and when he does – and ending it with radio speeches by Hitler and Mussolini and far-off police sirens – gives audiences much to think about. It’s brilliant and admirable and allows Portia to examine her previous beliefs, Jessica to reflect and the rest of us to ponder and remember.

Wentworth is superb, as are Michelle Giroux, Sara Farb, Tyrell Crews and Jonathan Goad. The sets are by Douglas Paraschuk and original music is cinematic.

Theater review

Four stars

What: “The Merchant of Venice”

Where: Festival Theatre, Stratford Festival

Through: Oct. 18

Info: www.stratfordfestival.ca