Shakespeare Repertory

at the Ruth Page Theater

Shakespeare Repertory artistic director Barbara Gaines’s timing seems impeccable. By design, fate, luck, or simple coincidence, she chose Othello as the opening production of her troupe’s 1995-’96 season; America’s recent jolt into acute awareness of its racial divisions makes Gaines’s “Afro-centered Othello” (to quote the slick publicity brochure handed out on opening night) sound incredibly apt. Her interpretation of the tragedy, the brochure quotes her as saying, will focus on the first credible, sympathetic black hero in English drama as “a man whose roots in Africa are deep….[a man who] may want to be integrated into Venetian society but because of bigotry…remains isolated.” Opening at the end of a week that began with Louis Farrakhan’s Million Man March–that extraordinary expression of the hope, sorrow, anger, and fear provoked by America’s decaying, endlessly unjust race relations–Gaines’s Othello promises Shakespeare at his most powerfully contemporary.

Which makes the production’s failure all the more disappointing. Though it boasts evocative visual images achieved through gorgeous costumes (by Nan Cibula-Jenkins), highly theatrical lighting (by Frances Aronson), and spare but striking sets (by Donald Eastman), Gaines’s Othello is hollow, gimmicky, and unmoving. It falls down exactly where it aims to soar: in establishing Othello as a rich, complex personality, not just a noble foil to the treacherous Iago, whose crafty manipulations drive the plot.

Much of the problem lies with Paul Butler, a competent character actor who’s completely out of his depth as the heroic, passionate Othello. But his weakness is compounded by Gaines’s miscalculations. Perhaps trying to compensate for her lackluster lead, she has guided or allowed most of the cast to overact shamelessly. And her supposed emphasis on Othello’s African heritage–the cultural legacy he’s jettisoned in his rise to power as a mercenary Venetian military leader, a heritage that beckons to him as his place in white society crumbles–consists of a few token gestures unintegrated with Shakespeare’s text.

This Othello starts well enough, as the tape-recorded sounds of Romantic chamber music (suggesting the production’s 1870s setting) segue into the pulsing rhythms of African drums. A dimly lit tableau shows Othello dreaming about the sensual world he left behind; then we’re transported to the stuffy sitting room of a Victorian gentlemen’s club, where Iago sits discussing the elopement of the Moorish general Othello with the fair (in every sense of the word) Desdemona, whose father Brabantio is sure to be enraged. (It’s not that Brabantio dislikes blacks; he just doesn’t want his daughter to marry one.) As it happens, Brabantio is napping in an armchair in the same sitting room, rather than in his own house as the scene is usually played–a nice touch establishing the chilly elitism that binds the play’s white men together in opposition both to the black outsider and to the women characters. In the opening scene the level of the acting is also encouraging: Steve Pickering’s bald, bullet-headed pit bull of an Iago is magnetically malevolent from the start, while Greg Vinkler’s bitter Brabantio–simultaneously sad, funny, and hateful–establishes racism as a cancerous reality in the world of the play.

But as soon as Othello enters and is confronted by Brabantio, the energy flags. In the first half of the play Othello’s part is largely reactive: unexpectedly denounced by his unwilling father-in-law, his confidence shaken, he becomes easy prey for the flattering false friend Iago, who suggests that Desdemona may be sleeping with Othello’s second-in-command Cassio. To become the drama’s anchor, as Gaines intends, Othello must have presence and charisma, must display a richness of spirit in his speech and carriage. Butler (who was quite effective as the taciturn Shylock in Peter Sellars’s controversial Merchant of Venice last year at the Goodman) moves stiffly and sluggishly, and though his voice is resonant, it lacks the dynamism and color needed for Shakespeare’s poetry.

Butler also seems to have no emotional connection to the text or to the other characters. Far too old and overweight to be a believable love interest for Deborah Staples’s unusually feisty Desdemona, he’s unconvincing as a brilliant warrior; in his blue uniform adorned with medals and gold trim, he’s more like a retired cop supplementing his pension as a bank guard. When his jealous wrath is roused by Iago’s insinuations and Desdemona’s denials, Butler’s Othello seems merely a peevish bully, not the chaotic force of nature Shakespeare intended. After strangling Desdemona–who puts up quite a fight, in a nice change from the sacrificial submissiveness with which the murder is often played–he utterly fails to sustain the tension needed to keep the escalating violence from turning into a ludicrous bloodbath.

Given Butler’s shallow, uninteresting portrayal, the music and dance sequences intended to evoke Othello’s African roots seem merely desperate attempts to shake some life into the show. Meanwhile, usually reliable supporting actors go over the top in a vain effort to stoke the energy. Lisa Dodson as Iago’s ill-used wife Emilia does have some powerful moments; her speech to the doomed Desdemona, meditating on the plight of women whose husbands turn dangerously jealous, not only chillingly foreshadows the action but makes a moral statement of considerable force. Dodson’s death scene, however, is an absurd display of blood-spattered scenery chewing. And Pickering, his shaved head suggesting a Prussian ruthlessness, pushes Iago into horror-film hamminess, signaling his character’s psychosexual torments with studiously obvious body language and capping his monologues with a fiendish laugh better suited to a Svengoolie send-up than to serious Shakespeare.

Even at his most excessive, Pickering at least brings excitement and purpose to his role–which, as it happens, he played before, in Eric Simonson’s 1992 staging at Court Theatre. There were flaws in that version too, but at least it had a handle on Othello as the victim of racial alienation, thanks in part to Harry J. Lennix’s lyrical, sexy performance in the title role. As artistic director of Shakespeare Repertory, Gaines has demonstrated a flair for finding the vivid drama in lesser-known, imperfect Shakespeare; but here, working with a familiar masterpiece, she fumbles badly. It’s a shame, for no play in the Shakespeare canon could be more timely.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eric Y. Exit.