Empty tragedy

American Stage's production of Othello goes through the motions

click to enlarge SENSUALITY AND STRENGTH: J. Bernard Calloway and Anna Bocknek play the lovers Othello and Desdemona in American Stage's production of Othello. - American Stage
American Stage
SENSUALITY AND STRENGTH: J. Bernard Calloway and Anna Bocknek play the lovers Othello and Desdemona in American Stage's production of Othello.

Classic dramas ought to provide a great opportunity for serious actors. Not just the opportunity to intone fabled lines — though that too is a special privilege — but the chance to add one's interpretation of a character to a long line stretching back decades or centuries.

How will a performer give us Hamlet or Blanche DuBois? Is Hamlet a weakling and a coward or just a cautious intellectual who doesn't believe in ghosts? Is Blanche a champion of civilization — however faded, however neurotic — or is she an insensitive, dangerous narcissist, callously threatening her sister's marriage and setting forth like a predator to grab hapless Mitch? One goes to see great classics not to find out "what happens" — we discovered that in school — but to see what canny actors make of Oedipus or Tartuffe or Miss Julie or Willy Loman. And when an actor not only has a good idea, but has the technique to make it persuasive ... well, it can influence our concept of a play forever after.

Then there's the other scenario: that a performer has nothing to tell us. Yes, he's mastered the lines; yes, she looks the part; but as we encounter the oh-so-familiar speeches, it occurs to us that these thespians have no conception of their own to add, no angles new or unexpected, not the first rewarding insight. Since we know the text well, it's hard not to feel exasperated. Sure, it's better than sitting at home with the bare text. But how much better?

I'm afraid this case with Othello, currently showing at American Stage. This energetic but mostly uninspired production features too many performances that do nothing much more than deliver the words along with the most plausible emotions — and not a hint of deeper understanding. The actor playing Othello lacks depth and complexity; the Desdemona comes across as nothing much more than well-meaning, and the Iago — Christopher Swan, who has a wonderful command of Shakespeare's language — doesn't give us a hint of what drives this most evil of Shakespeare's characters, whom Coleridge described as evidencing "motiveless malignity." In fact, the only totally satisfying performance is Brian Shea's in the relatively small part of Roderigo. His Roderigo is so complete, so detailed and emotionally credible that he comes alive for us in a way that none of the other actors approach.

But he's only on stage for a few minutes. The rest of the time, we catch only glimpses of what a successful Shakespeare production should be.

You remember the story: Othello, a black North African (or "Moor") is the city of Venice's military general and all-round hero. In secret, he marries the beautiful (and lily-white) Desdemona — which leads her father to accuse him of seducing her with witchcraft. When Desdemona admits that she made the match willingly, Othello and Desdemona are set to sail off for Cyprus, where it looks like the Turks are spoiling for a fight. But Othello's ensign Iago deeply hates his general and comes up with a plot that will destroy the noble Moor. He intends to convince the new husband that Desdemona is unfaithful — with the Moor's trusted lieutenant Cassio, of all people — and to drive him to such jealousy that all three of them — Othello, Desdemona and Cassio — will be ruined. On Cyprus, Iago's vicious plan is turned into action, and as for what happens next, well, they don't call it a tragedy for nothing.

So now, what do we need — and what's lacking — from the American Stage production? Well, first we require an Othello who's so charismatic, so convincingly commanding that we can believe that white Venice overcame its prejudices and raised him to high honor. But J. Bernard Calloway is neither of these things: He's all surface, like a TV character in a gritty police drama, without a subtext, without irony, without deeper levels or mixed emotions.

Further, he lacks the athletic quality we expect of a physical adventurer. He speaks his Shakespeare adequately, but there are certain key expressions — "And when I love thee not, chaos is come again" and "It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul" — that he delivers without the faintest hint of understanding. This is too rich a character to be given so uncomplicated a performance.

From Desdemona we want strength, a certain naïveté, sensuality, the capacity to deceive (as she deceived her father) and a rebelliousness of soul that explains her courage in defying public opinion in her choice of husband. Anna Bocknek gives us the innocence and sexuality, but she seems incapable of daring decisions and has no more spirit of revolt — or of any sort of daring — than you might find in a pampered child in an upscale toy store.

Her best moments come when she is chiding Othello like a modern wife might — and again, one can't help but suspect that she's right for the realism of television or film, but not for the Master of Complex Personalities. Shakespeare specializes in strong women, and Desdemona is one of them — but in this production she's little more than a trophy wife.

And Iago: the epitome of evil for evil's sake, of hatred of the good ("He hath a daily beauty in his life that makes me ugly," he says of Cassio), of utter hypocrisy. This is a character that can't just be played — he has to be solved. And the fine actor Christopher Swan doesn't do it. He masters the language, he masters the look and the sound of a bad man, but he never tells us why, why Iago keeps changing his story as to the source of his hatred, why he's willing to kill his own wife at a moment's notice.

I'm a fan of Swan's past work, so I say more in regret than in anger: This Iago is boring. After a while I stopped searching Swan's performance for clues to the extremity of the man. There were none there to discover.

There were some other almost satisfying impersonations: Sherman Fracher as Emilia, John Lombardi as the Duke, Steven Clark Pachosa as Brabantio. I have to wonder why director Drew Fracher didn't elicit more from his actors, but Scott Cooper's minimalist set was fine, as were Amy J. Cianci's modern-day costumes. T. Scott Wooten's sound design included some very portentous percussion. Megan Byrne's lighting was nicely atmospheric.

But is this all of Othello? Could this really be one of the great Shakespeare's greatest tragedies?

Not in this version. Not by a long shot.

Alas.

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