Of Shakespeare's major tragedies, "Othello" seems to be having the most success in the theater of late.
The Old Globe's new outdoor production, which launched its 2014 Summer Shakespeare Festival with Blair Underwood as the Moor of Venice and Richard Thomas as Iago, suggests that the secret to the play's success lies in its melodrama — the pitched battle between a clearly demarcated good and evil.
This would seem to go counter to the general practice of Shakespeare, whose greatness rests in no small measure on the doubts, ambivalence and slipperiness of his protagonists. But this revival, directed by artistic director Barry Edelstein, demonstrates that even when much of the work's psychological subtlety is drained away, the basic story of the deception of a heroic military leader's vulnerable soul by a sly, resentful subordinate remains gripping.
The production, unfolding on a bare to sparsely furnished set by Wilson Chin, isn't the most scenically exciting. The highly percussive music that's performed live provides a decorative coating that's not all that well integrated. And some of the cuts to the text seem draconian. (Desdemona's "I saw Othello's visage in his mind" has been curiously excised.)
Yet the production moves swiftly and clearly, if somewhat too broadly. This is a strong rendering of the play's outline, and that will suffice for a summer night. Where "Macbeth" requires an elusive perfection not to live up to the legend of its curse, "Othello" has a knack for failing upward.
There have been two extraordinary British revivals of "Othello" in recent years. Michael Grandage's tense re-imagining of the play at the Donmar Warehouse with Chiwetel Ejiofor's majestically moving Othello andEwan McGregor's Iago set a high-water mark that was equaled last year by Nicholas Hytner's modern-dress revival at the National Theatre with Adrian Lester's suave Othello and Rory Kinnear's Iago for the ages.
What made these revivals so memorable wasn't simply the way these Moors of Venice uniquely captured the character's combination of African outsider and glamorous military icon or the manner in which these Iagos made sinister flamboyance chillingly plausible. It was the twisted pas de deux of deceiver and deceived, a dynamic requiring the complete immersion of the actors in the daily, hyper-masculine familiarity of this close-quarters relationship, with all its racial and cultural baggage.
The theatrical styles of Underwood's smooth and mellifluous Othello and Thomas' rather archly villainous Iago aren't especially complementary. One sign of this is the way Iago's duping of Othello consistently elicits laughter from the audience. Theatergoers have reason to be amused: It seems that everyone but Othello is able to see through the obvious manipulations of this shameless dastard.
Thomas, whose early fame came from playing one of the most benign fellows in television history, John-Boy Walton, is a very accomplished stage actor. But too often here he seems to be relishing the opportunity of smashing his "Waltons" legacy to smithereens. (If his performance in the FX series "The Americans" hasn't de-John-Boy-ed him for good, this should do the trick.)
He all but twirls a mustache as he leads Othello, step by step, into the delusion that his wife, Desdemona (Kristen Connolly), is having an affair with his lieutenant, Michael Cassio (Noah Bean).
In the handkerchief scene, in which Iago purports to give Othello the "ocular proof" of his wife's infidelity, the Moor does indeed become something of a comic grotesque. But Othello's precipitous fall in dignity should leave us unsettled, not tittering like a sitcom laugh track.
As dashing a presence on stage as he is on the screen, Underwood shines in the "domestic" scenes, particularly in those moments when Othello's enchantment with Desdemona helplessly reveals itself despite his growing suspicions about her honesty. His acting rapport with Connolly is more natural than it is with Thomas, and it brings out her best work in the role. Their affectionate marital banter has a charge of spontaneity that heightens the preciousness of the couple's brave bond.
Edelstein's staging of the homicidal climax is more adroit with the violence than with the poignancy. Othello's brutality is sharply depicted, but Desdemona's agonizing death creaks with an old-fashioned staginess.
Thomas, I feared, had backed himself into a corner by playing up Iago's wickedness from the start. Where could the actor take the role in the final scenes? But Iago's malevolence is shown to have no bottom — it only grows deeper and more harrowing. His inexplicable evil is a primal force feeding upon itself.
By the end, as Thomas' Iago descends into silence, all human light has been extinguished from his eyes. What will linger most in the memory of this portrayal is the sense of almost underwater isolation that Iago has willfully created.
Notable in the supporting cast are Jonny Orsini's freshly updated take on Iago's easy mark, Roderigo, Bean's noble Cassio, whose "very poor and unhappy brains for drinking" can be described as his Achilles' heel, and Angela Reed's Emilia, Iago's misused wife and Desdemona's lady-in-waiting who confronts the cruelty of men with heart-rending shrieks of moral indignation.
This may not be the most textured or multilayered "Othello," but the tragedy's engine hasn't lost any horsepower.
Where: The Old Globe's Lowell Davies Festival Theatre, 1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park, San Diego
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays. Ends July 27.
Tickets: Start at $29
Contact: (619) 234-5623 or http://www.theoldglobe.org
Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes