The most compelling part of any Shakespearean tragedy—aside from the stabbings, shootings and poisonings—is its timeless storyline, a quality many directors emphasize by translating the setting into a modern time and place.
In Jon Kretzu’s production of Othello at the Artists Repertory Theatre, the decision to place the story in a vaguely post-World War II Mediterranean setting is what creates the play’s most interesting moments. His other decisions—especially the characterization of Othello and of Iago’s motivation to ruin him—fall flat.
Othello is a play about jealousy. Othello is a black army general, newly married to the senator’s white daughter Desdemona. He is so strong and well-respected that he rose in rank despite heavy prejudice against his race.
Iago is his trusted adviser. According to Iago, he has been unfairly passed over for a promotion to the rank of Othello’s lieutenant, and a soldier named Cassio was promoted instead. In an effort to oust Cassio and ruin Othello, Iago leads Othello to believe that his new wife is having an affair with Cassio and consequently prods him into a jealous homicidal rage. Iago is a villain plagued by self-hatred and insecurity, so closed off from his heart that in the end he has turned against every last one of his companions, even his partner in crime.
In ART’s Othello, these characters are not clear. Iago (Todd Van Voris) is excellently played, but he is too jovial and ruddy-cheeked to be believable as a cold-blooded villain. His cunning, his calculating, his hatred and his jealousy are all delivered with a lighthearted cartoonish punch.
Likewise, Othello (Victor Morris) is portrayed as such a pussycat that while his intense love for Desdemona (Amaya Villazan) is believable, his insane jealousy is not. Where are the qualities that brought him to the rank of general? Is anyone afraid of him? And most importantly, why is Iago out to get him? Real motivation was absent from this production.
The strongest points of this play are its behind-the-scenes contributors, namely the scenic, lighting, sound and props designers. Don Crossley creates perfect moonlight through the set’s Venetian blinds, a believable crack of lightning and—with the utilization of a ceiling fan—the sense of dizziness and confusion preceding Othello’s poisoned-induced seizures.
The props are spot-on and put the audience right in the mid-1940s. From old radios and microphones to brandy snifters, martini stems and elegant breakfast trays, props designer Kollodi delivers an aesthetically enchanting Mediterranean army base.
Costuming is a mixed bag. Desdemona and Iago’s wife Emilia (Sarah Lucht) wear beautiful vintage dresses, skirts and blouses (including a particularly notable blue evening gown worn by Desdemona).
The male characters Othello, Roderigo (Alec Wilson) and Lodovico (Michael Mendelson) are also well dressed, but a few of the costuming choices are so lackluster that they mute the visual sparkle this mid-century take on Othello has almost successfully realized.
Despite this production’s shortcomings, it does make for a nice evening downtown. ART is always a pleasure to visit and the cast is genuinely excited to put on a show. The play’s length (three hours and ten minutes, with one 15-minute intermission) is unjustified, but there are enough funny and well-played moments to spur a positive after-the-show conversation.
The show is certainly worth consideration for a place on your dinner-and-a-show itinerary, but don’t expect anything groundbreaking.