Othello, the Moor of Venice
Bare Theatre
Through Feb. 22

Making Shakespeare sensible to contempoary audiences is no mean feat. Often, it’s the rush of movement on stage or the warmth of an actor’s smile that best brings the verse to life. And so it goes with Bare Theatre’s latest Shakespearian production, Othello, where director Carmen-Maria Mandley’s cast dances, rolls and shakes to jungle-like drums.

This accompaniment, provided by a percussion unit dressed in head-to-toe black (as is most of the cast), is one of the most intriguing elements of this mesmerizing show, providing commentary and elevating excitement. Mandley capitalizes on the beats, creating swift dialogue among cast members and encouraging continuous motion to keep things visually interesting. With a minimalist set (two wooden benches, a table and chair) and sparse costuming (Iago wears the most complete period costuming) it’s the movement and body language of the cast that fully pulls us into Othello’s world.

There is a cost, however, to the value of the text: The casta mix of seasoned performers and novicesstruggles at times to find resonance in the speeches and rhymes. Fortunately, these limited performances remain only on the fringe of the play and main characters such as Iago (a beguiling Seth Blum) and Desdemona (a luminous Heather J. Hackford, also the play’s choreographer) are given breadth and width. And, as the Moor, Byron Jennings was aptly gentle, jealous and murderous.

It’s the pacing of this Othello (which played Durham’s Common Ground Theatre last weekend and moves to Holly Springs Cultural Center Thursday, Feb. 21) that both inhibits and defines it: Some actors overreached their cause and became shrill. Still, in a play so ripe with humanity, these emotional undertones and missteps bring fresh meaning to these antiquated words and phrases. As one young man said to his father at the play’s close, “This felt real, Dad.” Kathy Justice

Hedwig and the Angry Inch
Raleigh Ensemble Players
Through Feb. 23

In the last year, there have been other area productions of John Cameron Mitchell’s career-making cabaret about a post-botched-op transexual non-rock star. Although Raleigh Ensemble Players’ brief run is itself a reprise of its 2002 show, that production was the North Carolina premiere, so a certain proprietariness is understandable. Like its predecessor, this revival is being performed at Legends nightclub, a venue that is no stranger to drag shows.

Last Sunday, before a standing crowd of about 60 or 70, REP artistic director C. Glen Matthews was in full-throated roar. Backed by a tight quartet of guitars, bass, keyboards and drums, as well as backing vocalist and thwarted “other half” Yitzak (Deb Royals), Matthews hurtled about the space with a cordless mic and flame-tipped platform boots, with the anthemic wankiness of Patti Smith and the workaday contortions of an aging lap dancer.

This show’s main shortcoming is weak staging of the interplay between Hedwig and Yitzakalthough Royals’ triumphant re-entry at the play’s close is somewhat compensatory. Otherwise, this is a dynamite show, for newcomers and devotees alike. Arrive early and load up on drinks at the bar. David Fellerath

TopDog/ Underdog
Playmakers Rep
Through March 2

Definitely not to be missed, Topdog/ Underdog is the sharp, exhilarating story of two brothers named Lincoln and Booththeir father’s idea of a joke, we’re told. Together they pair off into an alternately loving and threatening tango, bearing testament to the luck of the draw as two black men, abandoned by their parents and captivated by the con game three-card monte. Here, Brandon Dirden (Booth) and Tyrone Mitchell Henderson (Lincoln) deserve equal merit for this two-hander set entirely in Booth’s one-room apartment. Megan Stein

Playmakers Rep
Through Feb. 29

John Patrick Shanley’s 2005 Pulitzer Prize-winning play features Julie Fishell as Sister Aloysius, a Catholic school principal in the Bronx who suspects a parish priest of sex abuse. Though Fishell’s Aloysius is a character-based concerto, under Drew Barr’s direction she does occasionally lean too hard on certain notes and volumes. Jeffrey Blair Cornell is positive and subtle as the suspected priest Father Flynn; and the conflict between the two builds commendable force. Byron Woods