Theater Review: “Othello” at the American Repertory Theater — Un-moored
By Laurence Senelick
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of Othello lacks a tragic dimension not because it highlights Othello’s “Otherness,” but because it eschews any vestige of grandeur or nobility.
Othello by William Shakespeare. Directed by Bill Rauch. An Oregon Shakespeare Festival production presented by the American Repertory Theater at the Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle Street, Cambridge, MA, through February 9.
Will a white actor ever again be allowed to play Othello, at least in the English-speaking world? For three centuries, any ambitious tragedian was expected to scale the four Shakespearean heights — Hamlet, Macbeth, Lear and Othello. Laurence Olivier was probably the last to do so. For, although tenors of any ethnicity are allowed to sing Verdi’s Otello, vocal technique being the criterion there, Shakespeare’s play has become the site of identity politics, fraught with pitfalls if one is not an actor of color. When, however, Othello’s destruction is put down to racism, he is reduced from tragic hero to victim.
Like the other Big Three, Othello is doomed by good old Aristotelian hamartia, misjudgment, making the wrong decision at a critical moment. If his downfall is to have any resonance beyond his individual case, it must result from his inner workings, not from outside forces. Were Othello’s tragedy to be that he is a Moor in a white Christian community — whether a black East African or a tan North African is irrelevant — social reforms and enlightened education would be the remedy. As it is, the only racial slurs come from Iago, Rodrigo and Brabantio — a villain, a dimwit, and an outraged father, whose anger is directed more at his daughter than at her abductor. And Othello himself, a convert to Christianity, has no compunction about maligning the “Other”; for him, a Turk is a “circumcised dog.” (An earlier school of Shakespearean criticism might inquire into the state of Othello’s foreskin.)
The Othello at the ART cannot be faulted for an overemphasis on race. A more fundamental flaw mars this import from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival: it lacks a tragic dimension not because it highlights Othello’s “Otherness,” but because it eschews any vestige of grandeur or nobility. Othello’s descent into tragedy can wring our hearts and disturb our minds only if he begins as a paragon of valor, charm, magnanimity, greatness of soul, distinguished from the Venetians not only by his complexion but by his exceptionalism.
Bill Rauch the director belongs to the Peter Sellars school of staging: transfer the action of a classic work to the present time and fill it with the detritus of everyday life. Cell phones, intercoms, video screens are supposed to impress the audience with the timeliness and relevance of an obsolete play. Rank and class differences, elements of ceremony and protocol, the alien and outlandish must be eliminated in favor of the familiar. This has a boomerang effect here. The quotidian appliances evoke giggles. What’s worse, Othello’s distinction is diminished. Yes, he’s a person of color played by a person of color; but in his naval uniform he seems like an American officer among American personnel. He fits in easily, no more exotic than Colin Powell; but if he comes across as an everyman rather than someone extraordinary, his fall dwindles into a stumble.
About this navy business. Shakespeare’s Othello is a general who commands men in the field, conquers armies, and kills with his bare hands. One is struck by how many times in the text he is addressed as “General,” reiterating his rank as a sign of stature and respect. An admiral, on the other hand, is not a fighter these days, but a navigator and an administrator. Why Rauch chose to switch the services is not clear, but to hear Othello constantly called “Admiral” while in his Navy whites conjures up images of Halsey or Nimitz behind a desk. Moreover, it makes nonsense of Othello’s valedictory “Farewell the plumèd troop.” Othello’s occupation’s gone indeed.
Chris Butler, the Othello in this production, resembles Charles Dutton, who played so many leads in August Wilson’s plays: stocky, bald, more chummy than commanding. Shakespeare gives him a stunning entrance. Othello suddenly appears and uses irony to stop a street brawl: “Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them.” Since there are no swords at play and not much of a ruckus, Butler’s intrusion fails to have the desired effect. “Nothing to see here, move along.” Then Othello delivers his orotund speech to the Venetian senate, describing how he wooed Desdemona. This is an aria and, to have its full effect on its hearers, both on stage and in the house, must enthrall the listener. But Butler cannot balance several lines on a single breath, as a well-trained Shakespearean must; he breaks the speech into small phrases and wanders the stage aimlessly. This undermines the sense of charismatic power he must project. If Othello doesn’t impress us with his ability to move men in these early acts, his descent is that much more reduced. He can come across as just another misguided wife-killer like Hickey in The Iceman Cometh.
(The spoken aspect of the production is weak in general. Desdemona delivers her lines flatly with hard r’s. Emilia shrieks. Butler roars and snaps under stress, but by the second half of the play he has no voice left and has to utter his final speeches in a raucous croak. The only actor capable of projecting vocal authority without strain is Richard Howard as Brabantio.)
In many productions of Othello the title role may be eclipsed by the Iago. Olivier deliberately avoided that by casting a mediocre actor, Frank Finley, in the part. Here the Iago (Danforth Comins) stands out, abetted by the levelling nature of the play’s interpretation. His Iago is wholly plausible, an ordinary Joe, the sort of guy you’d meet in a sports bar. The audience is with him from the start; like Richard III, he wins us with his asides, even though the director locates them in a less-than-subtle spotlight. Comins is best at the throw-away lines. Though he ratchets up the intensity for Iago’s avowals that he hates the Moor for ostensibly bedding his wife and for denying him promotion, he cannot make them convincing. The murkiness of Iago’s psychology brings to mind Coleridge’s memorable phrase, “motiveless malignity.”
The eye is not gladdened by the production design. The costumes seem deliberately ugly: camouflage fatigues, T-shirts and gym shorts, garish slacks and drab burnooses. Even the rich gentleman Rodrigo, come a-wooing, is dressed like a homeless delinquent. The sets are grey or dun-colored. Consequently there is no sense of occasion, even at ceremonial moments. And music is brought in, as it would be in a Victorian melodrama, to prompt us to emotional response, something the actors should be doing.
The staging offers one gauche miscalculation after another. The scene between Othello and Iago in which the seed of jealousy is planted takes place in a gym, dotted with multiple TV screens, the two men spotting one another as they lift weights. The complicated choreography of Rodrigo’s murder takes place with Desdemona in her bed center stage. We soon realize that this distracting tableau of the Sleeping Beauty is there to abet a directorial “bright idea.” The whole cast suddenly comes in and revolves the bed in position for the final episode.
In an interview, Rauch explains this as “ritual movement”, “to highlight that these tragedies are not stories of individual pathology [but] societal tragedies.” Here we have a fundamental misunderstanding of classical tragedy and Othello in particular. This is not Ibsen. There is no “society” in Othello: there is the senate and the army, both of whom respect and revere the general, at least officially. Shakespeare is careful to move his protagonists to Cyprus, an alien environment in which they are all isolated. “Society” is irrelevant to their motivations and actions. And why, fourth-fifths of the way through the play, insert a stylized ritual, when it is out of keeping with a production so rooted in a contemporary ambience?
The bedchamber scene, which should be the culmination of Othello’s precipitous fall, fails to produce any sense of shock and awe, let alone pity and terror. This Moor has such a hard time strangling his wife that it calls to mind the bungled murder in Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain. The characters become ludicrous, threatening one another with penknives the size of nail files. And after Othello stabs himself with a slightly larger blade (letter-opener size), he writhes like a provincial barnstormer. Blood is spilt with Grand-Guignol prodigality. Amidst all this sound and fury, we wait in vain for the moment of truth, when Othello receives the Oedipal revelation that one’s whole life has been predicated on a lie. It never comes. The lines that express it are recited but without the cumulative force which the whole production should have led up to.
Laurence Senelick is Fletcher Professor of Drama and Oratory at Tufts University and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He has directed at the Loeb Drama Center, the Boston Lyric Opera, Boston Baroque, Poets Theatre, Actors Company, Hull House Theatre, The Proposition and many other venues. He is the editor of The American Stage for the Library of America, and the veteran spectator of many Othellos, including those of Olivier, Orson Welles, James Earl Jones, and a gonzo German version featuring a fat white man and a grand piano.