Watch ‘Othello’ for free at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s annual ‘Free for All’

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'Othello' at Shakespeare Theatre (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — It has staged free Shakespeare plays to more than 662,000 residents since 1991, first at the Carter Barron Amphitheater and now at Shakespeare Theatre Company.

Starting Tuesday, the 27th annual “Free For All” brings “Othello” to Sidney Harman Hall (Aug. 15-27), starring a familiar face from ABC’s “American Crime” and SyFy’s “The Magicians.”

“I think it’s such a wonderful idea,” actor Faran Tahir told WTOP. “It opens new audiences to Shakespeare, it opens new audiences to theater, it’s a wonderful opportunity for people to bring their families because tickets can get pricey. It’s a wonderful way to end the summer.”

Set in 16th century Cyprus, Moorish general Othello (Tahir) is promoted to lead the Venetian Army. Tragically, he is manipulated by his deputy Iago (Jay Whittaker) to falsely believe that his new bride Desdemona (Madeleine Rogers) is having an affair with his loyal lieutenant Cassio (Patrick Vaill). We watch as his promising military career spirals out of control into bloodshed.

“Iago has a personal vendetta against Othello, because he was passed on for the promotion that Cassio [got],” Tahir said. “Iago, through his conniving, crafty ways, puts doubt in Othello’s brain. … Doubt is something a soldier cannot afford, because doubt in battle means death. When that drop of doubt is put into his mind, it spreads like cancer. … The tragedy and heroic story of this man is that here is the unraveling and destruction of a very decent human being.”

While the tale is an overall tragedy, Tahir seeks a redemptive silver lining for his character.

“He comes back and realizes what has happened, and at that moment, he forgives Iago,” Tahir said. “That to me is the real mark of a decent man. That you can commit horrible acts — in rage, in jealousy, in passion — but do you have the ability when you come back to your senses to understand what you have done? Or will you justify — until the bitter end — your actions?”

Such humble self-reflection is a teachable moment for today’s world leaders, many of whom would rather triple down than admit wrongdoing. It’s just one of many timely themes.

“It brings up issues that we’re dealing with in real life,” Tahir said. “‘Othello’ deals with themes of racism, religious apathy toward other faiths, agisim, classism, all these themes which are universal. … These themes have become a part of our human experience for hundreds of years. That’s why Shakespeare has become a classic. He tells the story in such a beautiful way, but at the same time, he deals with such deep issues that make it current for any time.”

Tahir is particularly struck by the notion of fearing “The Other.”

“Desdemona’s father accuses Othello that the only way he could have charmed his daughter is through witchcraft,” Tahir said. “This is an intriguing point to me, because every culture has always assigned the label of ‘The Other’ to someone. In this case, Othello is The Other; he’s a man from another culture, he’s a man from another race, he’s a man from another place.”

Tahir pored over these concepts with director Ron Daniels, who maintains a minimalist set.

“Ron and I go back almost 20 years,” Tahir said. “His [goal] is for people of today to feel the comfort and trust that this classic play is not beyond our understanding. It has to be brought to that level of simplicity. Even the stage is simply done … He directed me in ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ a long time ago with literally 18 chairs on stage. [Likewise in ‘Othello’], you will see three chairs, a table and drums on the side of the stage. The rest is all open stage.”

The staging may look deceptively simple, but the production is the result of tireless effort, including Tahir flying between play rehearsals in D.C. and TV shoots in Vancouver.

“I keep telling myself that ‘impossibility, fatigue, tiredness and exhaustion’ are not part of my lexicon,” Tahir joked. “There were times when I literally came back, did the rehearsal, got on a red eye, went back, shot for two days, got on a red eye, came back and rehearsed for two days, got back on a red eye. It’s crazy! … It’s a lot of work, but I wouldn’t do anything else.”

Such work ethic has maintained his visibility since his role on John Ridley’s “American Crime.”

“He’s so brilliant,” Tahir said. “‘American Crime’ of course dealt with the crime, but it dealt with all the issues that go around that crime in our society and how it affects people. Not just the solving of the crime, but the ripple effect of that particular tragic event on people’s lives. He holds up a mirror to look at ourselves, to repossess all of these good and bad qualities.”

You could say the same for Shakespeare’s “Othello.”

Click here to apply for the free ticket lottery. Listen to our full conversation with Faran Tahir below:

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Faran Tahir (Full Interview) (Jason Fraley)
Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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