Alexander Dodge concocts a crafty set design for Chicago Shakespeare’s decidedly uncrafty Othello. A sterile, brutalist facade of identical institutional windows, looking for all the world like a maximum security DMV, represents Venice. Its impersonal menace deftly conveys the unreflexive militarism that permeates Shakespeare’s world, a place where the mercenary known as Othello the Moor, who boasts he’s known nothing but soldiering since the age of eight, achieves near mythic status as a war hero. And where Iago, long Othello’s right-hand man in battle and worshipper of traditional military order—and, most importantly, of Othello himself—can suffer a Hamlet-like crisis of faith when inexperienced staff officer Cassio is promoted above him to lieutenant, leaving Iago the duty of marching around with a flag. The slight destroys Iago’s world order, setting him on a cunning, nihilistic rampage.
When everyone—Desdemona included—heads off to Cyprus to battle the Turks, Dodge packs them into an exquisitely barren military post, all hurricane fence and guard towers. They’re stranded, vulnerable, and perpetually distracted, giving Iago ample opportunity to ensnare people in his ever-expanding revenge plot. It should all be life-and-death stuff.
Unfortunately, director Jonathan Munby overlooks the fundamentals that give this tragedy its scope. He does a fine job painting this Venice as a skittish security state—his situation room, where the CEO-like duke declares war despite manifestly faulty intelligence, is particularly well drawn—but treats Othello like one among many military commanders rather than a cultural icon who can disarm an armed mob with a single sentence (a line unwisely cut from this production). With Othello given such diminished stature, the threat of his demise is likewise diminished, and Iago’s revenge shrinks to a personal grudge.
Munby also overlooks Iago’s cunning. In Shakespeare’s text, Iago is a master of wit and improvisation, unburdened by conscience, keen to exploit everyone’s weaknesses, oversights, and missteps. He’s dangerous as hell. Here, Michael Milligan’s Iago is a determined bully who hammers forward with hardly a moment’s pause to strategize, lucky rather than ingenious. He’s dangerous primarily in moments of rashness.
In essence, Munby creates a low-stakes tragedy. And that makes the cast’s propensity for stone-faced overearnestness and declaiming nearly every line in boldface italics particularly unconvincing. It’s an acting style that privileges grandiloquence over inner life, leaving the actors only a few emotional notes to hit repeatedly for three hours.
As Othello, James Vincent Meredith alone takes an understated approach, giving him a singularly affecting presence, at least for a while. But once his jealous rage surfaces, he spends his final hour in unmodulated, unaffecting apoplexy. v