I’ve been up at the Stratford Festival all this week, and am now outrageously behind in writing up my thoughts on this year’s productions. Partly, that’s just because the pace of the week has been too intense to afford much time for reflection. Partly it’s because the season has been so strong all-around that I have been more than a bit intimidated.

For no production was intimidation more of a factor in my slowness of response than this year’s Othello. There are plays that really make you think, and those are a pleasure for me to write about because, my mind already engaged, it’s not hard to come up with things to say that I can convince myself are clever or insightful. But other productions simply knock you flat emotionally, and you almost don’t want to engage the critical intelligence, for fear of spoiling that perfect moment of experience. Such was my response to director Chris Abraham’s extraordinary Shakespearean debut on the Stratford stage. (He has directed three prior Stratford productions, The Little YearsThe Matchmaker, and For The Pleasure of Seeing Her Againall of which I greatly liked, but all of which were more modern plays.)

I fretted a lot about this play before I saw it. For starters, the play has never spoken to me that powerfully. Reading it, I’m always struck by how absurdly easy it is for Iago to work on Othello. He seems primed for jealousy, and if we’re exploring that mentality then why do we need Iago at all? (And, indeed, no Iago is needed in The Winter’s Tale, a play that has always been one of my personal favorites.) I can derive intellectual interest from observing the way in which the playwright tricks us as easily as Iago does his commander – famously, the timeline of the play doesn’t quite work out, but nobody ever notices this in a halfway decent production. But I do not weep in my chair as I read.

And I’ve felt at best ambivalent about the productions I’ve taken in. Most of the Moors I’ve seen have failed to convince me that they are what everyone in Venice seems to think Othello is, “all in all sufficient.” And when Othello does not command us as well as he does his troops, we are left with the Iago show, which can be fun but Iago is not the tragic hero here, cannot move us to pity and terror.

Finally, I worried that the play was being offered on a traditional proscenium, rather than on an Elizabethan thrust. Why sacrifice that intimacy? How will we overhear Iago’s whispers through that fourth wall?

My every apprehension was vanquished utterly by this incredibly powerful production. Begin with the last: the proscenium. Abraham, his designer, Julie Fox, and his lighting designer, Michael Walton, have staged Shakespeare’s play as if it were a modern opera. The stage is dominated by an enormous rotating square, with a tilted top; scene changes are effected not by moving pieces of scenery but by moving the stage itself, the ensemble throwing their shoulders into the task of turning the great square so that the hill slopes down right to establish hierarchy, or up toward the audience to signify a ship, or downstage down, down to doom, to offer us the brutal final scene of murder. It’s both a brilliantly economical solution to the problem of creating that Shakespearean sense of motion and an evocative symbol of the grinding wheel of tragic fate. And, pared with featureless blood-red walls that can open up to create a passage, or close in to prevent escape, and lighting that often as not comes from the side and below, we are on notice from the first that this will be a tragedy of classic scope and sensibility.

Then: the Moor. I have, in the past, always liked Dion Johnstone best when he was cast as pure and open-hearted heroes, as Orlando, as Valentine, as Orestes. I have been more ambivalent about his journeys into darkness, as Edmund and Caliban – in particular, he lacked their quality of resentment. This, it turned out, made Othello the perfect tragic hero for him, for Othello is precisely that: pure and open-hearted and completely genuine in his love both for Desdemona and for Iago. He’s not a fool – he knows how to play the Senate, and is perceptive enough to see that Iago’s competency does not lie in command, which is more natural to Cassio whatever his other weaknesses. He has plenty of experience with being opposed, and he knows he has the power to persuade as well as the mettle for combat. But deception and cynicism undermine the very foundations of his mind, and his sense of self. Because that sense of self depends on others’ perception, his sense of what he sees they see.

So often, when Othello talks about himself, he talks principally about the impression he makes on others. Far from being “all in all sufficient,” he only sees himself through others’ eyes. He has been everything from a slave to a great commander, has suffered and experienced much, and what wrings love from his heart is when he sees Desdemona’s tears hearing his story – that is his ocular proof that she sees him, by which means he can finally see himself as what he truly is, a great and noble man. Take a look at the speech in which Othello abjures jealousy, right before Iago tips him over into jealous madness with surmises as light as feathers:

Think’st thou I’ld make a lie of jealousy,
To follow still the changes of the moon
With fresh suspicions? No; to be once in doubt
Is once to be resolved: exchange me for a goat,
When I shall turn the business of my soul
To such exsufflicate and blown surmises,
Matching thy inference. ‘Tis not to make me jealous
To say my wife is fair, feeds well, loves company,
Is free of speech, sings, plays and dances well;
Where virtue is, these are more virtuous:
Nor from mine own weak merits will I draw
The smallest fear or doubt of her revolt;
For she had eyes, and chose me. No, Iago;
I’ll see before I doubt; when I doubt, prove;
And on the proof, there is no more but this,–
Away at once with love or jealousy!

Johnstone delivered those lines with firm conviction, and without the too-familiar subtext that Othello must think himself ugly (because he is black) and so be grateful to have a beautiful, fair woman’s love. Because (as we know from Richard III’s successful courtship of Anne), love doesn’t work that way. If you despise yourself, you will at least as likely come to despise someone foolish enough to love you as for that love to lead you to see your own deserts. No: she had eyes. And so she saw him. And so she chose him. Before her, he had never properly been seen, at least not by a woman.

So why can Iago turn him so easily? Because it had never occurred to Othello that anyone he loved and trusted truly could – or would – deceive him. Iago plants the possibility, and once planted the weed quickly overruns the garden. Iago preaches mistrust; to mistrust him, and reject his counsel, is actually to trust him and his counsel, because it is to accept that Othello may be deceived by one he loves. And once that possibility is admitted, then how can he in quiet see his wife feed well, love company, sing and dance and, in general, manifest the free and open manners that are Desdemona’s hallmark?

I understand this nature very well. I myself have a hard time navigating layers of trust. In my old Wall Street life, I found it easy to negotiate with opponents, to assume that they were not being entirely truthful, and to only show the cards I wanted to show myself. But I could do that because I was part of a team, working together toward a common goal. Break open that team, suggest that, say, my boss did not have my best interests at heart, or that a colleague was working against me, and the earth cracked open. I didn’t know how to function. This made me valuable, but also vulnerable; it’s one of many reasons I was never that well-suited to that world, and why I was so very lucky to work mostly with people I felt I really could trust.

In this production, I saw that nature, for the first time, in Othello. And this finally let me in to the play – the whole play. And the play I discovered, that Abraham and his extraordinary cast have given, is a beautiful, intensely painful thing, because it is, at bottom, a love story.

While I am particularly grateful to this production for Johnstone’s take on Othello, the play is hardly dominated by him. Indeed, this is the most balanced Othello I have seen, and plays like a quartet: Othello, Iago, Emilia and Desdemona. Two pairs of friends, two pairs of unhappy lovers, but lovers they are – you can feel it in every line.

Graham Abbey’s Iago lacks the obvious brilliance of some I’ve seen, is not so convincing a mastermind, grabbing at every chance and improvising the perfect move to keep himself afoot, and trip his opponents up. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing – it keeps him from dominating the play. Meanwhile, he has a very firm grasp of Iago’s essential foulness, the depth of his cynicism and misanthropy. Abbey does not dominate his Roderigo (played here by Mike Shara with exceptional pathos and humor – more humorous because so pathetic; he’s the perfect fifth wheel) by his superior intellect. He dominates him by sheer vehemence. Roderigo cannot possibly miss the contempt in Iago’s voice, but he simply cannot stand up to the power of his cynical conviction. It’s the same with Cassio (Brad Hodder) – Abbey’s Iago doesn’t so much seduce him as bully him into the drinking bout that does him in.

And it’s even true with Othello. After Johnstone’s Othello has grabbed him roughly and thrown him to the floor in fury – “If thou dost slander her and torture me,/ Never pray more” – Abbey’s Iago struggles out from under his superior’s clutch, and exclaims, “Are you a man?” It’s a moment that can be played as calculated – playing on Othello’s (oft-asserted, but nowhere in evidence in this production) anxieties about his own masculinity. That’s not how Abbey plays it. He plays it part animal fear – of the real threat of violence from the more powerful man – and part an entirely natural expression of his own anxieties. “Are you a man” - these are words this Iago has lacerated himself with many, many times.

Which brings us to his flagrant misogyny, and the toughest relationship to play convincingly: his marriage to Emilia (played by Deborah Hay). It’s tough because we have to believe that there is some genuine spark there for Emilia’s fate to be have the tragic force it deserves, that even Iago was beloved. She is the one, after all, who gives Iago the handkerchief, hoping to wring some affection and approval from his cactus heart. And Hay got it. She plays Emilia like Katherine Hepburn after her most thorough humiliation by, oh, Cary Grant or Henry Fonda or Peter O’Toole – the list goes on and on – after her defenses are crushed and she falls back on her rock-bottom desire just to be loved, for once. She visibly hates the way Iago thinks of her, hates his opinion (which she blames on others’ slanders) – she never faults herself. But neither does she hate the man who hates her, until that final scene that reveals just what a monster he has become. Where did she learn to do continue to believe in love?

Perhaps from Desdemona, the only woman who looks, for a moment, like she might crack Iago’s hateful shell. Bethany Jillard’s Desdemona is not only beautiful and charming, not only as free and open in her general affection (as Othello knows she is, and does not fault her for) – she is commanding. She is thoroughly unintimidated by her furious father – compare her early speech to Brabantio (played here with convincing bitterness by Peter Hutt) to Cordelia’s “nothing” reply to Lear’s love test). She’s at ease after the difficult crossing to Cyprus, comfortable and free in the camp with Iago and the soldiers. Othello calls her his “fair warrior” and that is what Jillard is.

Such a warrior would never go gently to her death-bed. I have seen other actresses play Desdemona’s late scenes with a kind of saintly resignation – after all, she very clearly sees what is coming, and does not try to escape her fate by flight. This makes a superficial sense of her actions, but at the price of making her a less-powerful character, someone we want to shake out of her resignation. A cautionary tale rather than a tragedy.

But if it’s not resignation, then why does she dismiss Emilia that fatal night? Why does she talk about her wedding sheets being a shroud, if she is not going to an accepted if unmerited doom? As Jillard plays the scene, she is not going to her execution but into the arena. She is confident that she knows her husband, and confident she can convince him that his jealousies are unfounded. She believes she’s going to win. She talks of death not because she is resigned but because she knows the stakes: she’s playing for her life.

The final scene between Othello and Desdemona is almost unwatchable. First, because it looks, for a good while, like Desdemona might just pull it off. She is so confident, so sure, so calm – and Othello, not Desdemona, practically cries as he tells her to repent, that she must die. Indeed, she does not weep until she realizes that her husband’s madness had an author, the most trusted and dangerous opponent, and so she is going to lose the game. And these tears seal her doom:

OTHELLO
He hath confess’d.

DESDEMONA
What, my lord?

OTHELLO
That he hath used thee.

DESDEMONA
How? unlawfully?

OTHELLO
Ay.

DESDEMONA
He will not say so.

OTHELLO
No, his mouth is stopp’d;
Honest Iago hath ta’en order for’t.

DESDEMONA
O! my fear interprets: what, is he dead?

OTHELLO
Had all his hairs been lives, my great revenge
Had stomach for them all.

DESDEMONA
Alas! he is betray’d and I undone.

OTHELLO
Out, strumpet! weep’st thou for him to my face?

Now, thrown on her heels in argument, and on her back in fact, she begs, pleads, screams – and fights, fists flailing wildly at her husband as he brutally strangles her. And he stares not into his wife’s eyes but out at ours, the whites brilliant against the dark – searching for us, to see us see him, to see whether we understand why he is doing what he does. The violence, so horribly graphic and so strangely unexpected, because it really did look for much of the scene like she might release him from the thin net of lies Iago trapped him in, is positively nauseating. But even as he kills her, Othello’s wild eyes are filled with tears. As were mine as well.

The denouement that follows – Emilia’s horror and fury, Iago’s cold silence, Othello’s comical attempt to write his own epitaph (he loved not wise but too well?) was as masterfully-played as the first four acts. But if the rest of the play had been only fair to middling, the murder of Desdemona would be enough to justify this production’s entry in the lists.

Othello plays at Stratford’s Avon Theater through October 19th.