Watching a great Shakespeare play outside under the stars can be a remarkably civil and civilizing pleasure.
When a servant brushes her mistress’ hair just before bedtime, the two women fall into a discussion of men, ethics and relativity. Desdemona (Christina Haag), a devoted wife, offers that she would not deceive her husband for all the world. Brushing and thinking, the servant Emilia (Katherine McGrath) weighs her mistress’ heartfelt opinion and decides it is not thought through. “The world’s a huge thing,” she replies. “It is a great price for a small vice.”
And indeed, the huge world seems to stand still when Shakespeare’s gift for intimate, thoughtful dialogue makes itself heard as if for the first time. This moment, with two characters unaware they are having the last peaceful conversation in both of their lives, is beautifully acted and directed, a bright spot in a spotty “Othello,” presented by the Old Globe Theatre and directed by Jack O’Brien.
Tyrees Allen starts out as a sunny and amiable Othello, interesting if only because one wonders how his geniality will transmute into violence. But when it does come, Othello’s unraveling is bluster. He yells a lot, beats his breast, hunches over, falls to the ground and weeps. But he’s too busy to connect to any real pain. His rage never gets dangerous. When he goes to rip a white curtain down, he only musses it up. When he angrily snuffs out a candle, it takes him three attempts. And when he finally raises the pillow over his beloved’s head, one wonders why she doesn’t just push him off the bed.
Allen’s Moor is undone not only by jealously but also by a pair of black leather pants, too high and too short particularly after he has gotten up from one of his many visits to the floor. He looks like a guy who isn’t in control of his universe, let alone his pants.
Still, Allen is affecting in an eleventh-hour revelation. After Othello has done his terrible deed, and the community of soldiers is let into the bedchamber to see the dead Desdemona, Othello relates his state of mind, which had been so real to him just a few short moments ago. But faced with the opprobrium of the world, Othello’s certainty withers pathetically when it is aired in something other than the mad oxygen Iago has been feeding him.
Actors like to play Iago as a genius manipulator, and Richard Easton resists this temptation. Just how his Iago came to acquire such an impressive understanding of jealously--and exactly why he is so jealous of the Moor--is left a blank. This is a villain of only average intelligence; his is a banality-of-evil approach. In fact, Easton resembles a worker drone in his costume (Robert Morgan uses a rich, Rembrandt-esque palette, but his costumes for the men tend to undermine their maleness).
Iago’s first, bungled attempt against Othello, which opens the play, looks like it represents his best effort. Whatever success he later achieves is due to a persistent malevolence rather than a brilliant one. And while this isn’t a bad idea per se, it also works against Allen’s Othello. How great could he be if he is defeated by an average villain?
As the main pawn in Iago’s plan, Haag is a voluptuous Desdemona, a woman who oozes sensuality. This is not a male revisionist Desdemona--one never doubts her actual fidelity. But she obviously takes pleasure in male attention; she is not some paragon of purity. When she pleads with her husband to forgive their friend Cassio (Vaughn Armstrong), her eagerness implies she has a selfish reason for winning this favor; she wants to present Cassio with the trophy of her charms because she is a little attracted to him.
Haag’s sensuality helps to deepen a production that often seems too naked and too obvious. You can look at her and wonder about the relativity of innocence. As the tough Emilia, McGrath also adds layering. When she gives Desdemona’s handkerchief to Iago, her doubts tug firmly against what she knows is a hopeless attempt to receive some affection.
Plagued by uneven acting, Jack O’Brien’s “Othello” is not one for the ages. But some of Shakespeare’s best-expressed ideas about love and jealousy are served up in all of their lovely complexity.
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“Othello,” Old Globe Theatre, Lowell Davies Festival Theatre, Simon Edison Centre for the Performing Arts, San Diego, Tue.-Sun., 8 p.m. Ends Oct. 4. $22-$39. (619) 239-2255. Running time: 3 hours,25 minutes.
Tyrees Allen: Othello
Jonathan McMurtry: Brabantio/Gratiano
Vaughn Armstrong: Cassio
Richard Easton: Iago
Scott Ferrara: Roderigo
Sean Cullen: Duke of Venice
David Prentiss: First Senator
Henry J. Jordan: Montano
James Wallert: Lodovico
Christina Haag: Desdemona
Katherine McGrath: Emilia
Darla Cash: Bianca
Others: Christian Casper, Andrea Cirie, Michelle Cordero, Michael Cruz, Leslie Kalarchian, Cairlin Muelder, Derrick Demetrius Parker, Heather Raffo, Baylen Thomas, Matthew Troncone.
An Old Globe Theatre production. By William Shakespeare. Directed by Jack O’Brien. Sets Ralph Funicello. Costumes Robert Morgan. Lights Michael Gilliam. Sound Jeff Ladman. Composer Larry Delinger. Fight director Steve Rankin. Stage manager Raul Moncada.