Moor With Less
Curious Shakespeare production fails to bring its interesting ideas into dramatic unison
Published: October 27, 2010
By William Shakespeare
Something is missing from Run of the Mill’s current production of Shakespeare’s tragedy Othello. It’s not the acting, most of which is more than adequate and in some cases quite strong. It’s not the sets, as set/lighting designer Kendra Richard makes solid use of the LOF/t’s black-box environment, not trying to represent the play’s Venice or Cyprus and instead letting it unfold in some abstracted space in which changes in perspective and location are signified by alterations in lighting designs. Same goes for the wardrobes concocted by costume designer Michaela Healey and assistant Sheila Toomb, which shirk the play’s 16th-century time period and opt instead for more casual, contemporary clothing. So many of the individual parts work here, but the production still feels a tad untethered.
What’s absent is a confident and authorial throughline as to why these individual production choices were made. Interpreting Shakespeare isn’t merely the contemporary theater company’s right; it’s an energizing challenge. Just how that task is navigated is what makes doing Shakespeare today fun, intelligent, pertinent, and human. And while director Alec Lawson’s Othello has a few stirring moments, it doesn’t quite know what it’s trying to say—or, if it knows, the production doesn’t articulate the idea that strongly.
The production adheres closely to Shakespeare’s text. African prince Othello (David D. Mitchell) has eloped with Desdemona (Beverly Shannon), the daughter of a Venetian senator, a marriage that frustrates the pining Roderigo (Alex Smith). Before Desdemona’s father Brabantio (Jay Lyston) can challenge Othello over this marriage, the Turks invade Cyprus, and Othello leaves to defend the island. And once everybody arrives at Cyprus, Iago (Phil Doccolo), Othello’s trusted friend, begins manipulating everybody around him over infidelities and betrayals, as he himself feels stung when Othello promotes another soldier, Cassio (Dan Walker), over him.
It’s ripe melodrama, and this Othello feels like it wants to explore these fragile relationships. Iago is able to convince Roderigo that he still might have a chance to woo Desdemona. Iago encourages Othello to be suspicious of Desdemona and Cassio. Iago even uses his own wife, Desdemona’s maidservant Emilia (Sarah Heiderman), to help him acquire evidence he can use to trigger Othello’s emotions.
And in Doccolo, Run of the Mill’s Othello has a game actor. Iago isn’t just Othello’s masterful villain; he’s one of literature’s greatest manipulators. He’s the bullshitter’s bullshitter, the sort of man who could talk a vicar into a brothel while steering a courtesan into the convent, and he’s always out to get his. Doccolo, though, doesn’t play Iago as a Machiavellian power broker; instead, his Iago knows how to play on people’s spurned feelings and weaknesses because he’s so aware of his own. He knows just what emotional button to push to make Othello doubt his wife.
Doccolo can play the sweet and innocent friend during his confidential conversations; during his candid soliloquies, though, when overhead lights dim and acquire a reddish tint, his Iago becomes less a sinister schemer than a man who slowly realizes his gift for playing people. Doccolo’s Iago grows into his villainy, which makes it feel less like premeditated vengeance than psychological toying that spins out of control.
None of which explains why Iago looks like he’s auditioning for an open spot in Adam and the Ants. Clad in leather pants, a black T-shirt, a vest, and motorcycle boots, visually Doccolo’s Iago appears to be coming from one time and place while Mitchell’s Othello, clad in crisp all white, looks like he’s perhaps on his way to a nice cricket match. Cordelia Snow’s Clown almost never leaves the stage, and winningly plays this perceptive, verbally witty character like a 1970s Goldie Hawn blonde. Emilia moves through the show as a background player, but when she gets to assert herself at the play’s close once she realizes Iago’s duplicitous plots, Heiderman reveals her character’s fortitude and backbone with a genuine force.
Just why these characters’ arcs travel these paths—or why they’re dressed they way they’re dressed—never gets persuasively explained, though, which makes getting through this two-and-a-half-hour production tedious for certain stretches. It’s not bad—merely disappointing. This Othello delivers a number of interesting dramatic choices, but the uniting idea that should make these choices feel part of a singular vision never comes into focus.
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