At heart, all of William Shakespeare’s tragedies are little family dramas that explode like cluster bombs — blowing apart kingdoms, marriages, careers, lives, even our sense of the universe. With Othello, it’s his being tricked into a jealous rage and murdering his innocent young wife — ‘and chaos is come again.’ In his review of Second Thought Theatre’s Othello, KERA’s Jerome Weeks says that’s why a small, stripped-down staging can work better than a big one. It ups the intensity.
The tremendous advantage of a smart, cut-down staging of a Shakespearean tragedy like Second Thought’s Othello is intimacy. (And speed — director Joel Ferrell has cut a typically three-hour drama to two-and-a-half.) An intimate staging can add an emotional focus that the loose, floppier productions we typically find at the Shakespeare Festival or the Dallas Theater Center often lack. We simply don’t get many tightly-packed, ‘re-mastered’ classics like this from smaller, adventurous companies — even after Shakespeare’s playscript was edited down to only eight actors, it’s a sizable effort for Second Thought. But the resulting theater experience can be like watching the entire play in a single, cinematic close-up.
So it’s a pity here that, under director Ferrell, the actors bellow too much of that intimacy away — notably Tyrees Allen as Othello and, to a lesser degree, Alex Organ as Iago. It’s part of the production’s whole cacophony of clanging set pieces, crashing music (John Flores did the sound design) and barking military drill. All of them are effective methods for amping up a show’s energy level, to make this show feel bigger, have more clout. But together, they seem like it’s pushing, trying a bit too hard to keep us jolted and alert. As we’ll see, the whispered moments here can be the most chilling.
In Second Thought’s Red Light Winter, Alex Organ brilliantly portrayed a boyish, cold-hearted lout; his Iago is a grown-up, shrewder — and thus more enigmatic, more dangerous — version. He deludes his commanding officer Othello into believing Desdemona is cheating on him with Cassio (Blake McNamara). And he bullies and gulls the lovelorn Roderigo into thinking even he might have a chance with the beautiful young Venetian.
With this cut-down, speedier version, Iago’s multiple con jobs turn Organ into a whirlwind of evil energy — a prankish frat boy one moment, a straight-arrow soldier the next. If Organ yells a bit much, his Iago does shift vocally and tonally, fooling this person, then fooling that one and then confiding in the audience with something approaching the truth.
But with Othello, actor Tyrees Allen finds the point early in the second half when the Moor starts tearing himself apart with jealousy. After that, Allen gets stuck on shouting his despairing rage at full speed. Audience members might seriously worry about vocal damage — and if that mercifully doesn’t happen, damage is still being done to some of Othello’s lines. One can barely understand Allen at times as he rips through them.
And yet, this Othello can be as thrilling as any Shakespeare you’re likely to see on a North Texas stage.
That’s especially so of the thunderous, first-half ending, when Organ and Allen grip each other, forging their terrible bond of revenge. Repressed homosexuality has been one interpretation of Iago’s malign motivation since at least the 1985 Royal Shakespeare Company production directed by Terry Hands. But if Ferrell intends that, it’s really only this scene that suggests it with its crackling undercurrents of betrayal and need. Both men, faces only inches apart, angrily shout loyalty and love to each other (“Now art thou my lieutenant!” “I am your own forever.”) — and swear Cassio must die.
Allen has played Othello before, and he’s closer to the age the man should be: a hardened, battlefield leader. This works well for him when, having eloped with Desdemona, he must face down her outraged father Brabantio (Aaron Roberts). In fact, Allen could do with an easier confidence here because Ferrell has cut the earlier scene when we see Othello encounter soldiers come to arrest him. He calmly notes if they’re going to keep their swords drawn like that, the dew will rust them. As Iago exclaims later, here’s a man he’s never seen angry in battle. But that’s warfare. What about the home front, when this kind of officer, at his age, marries for the first time? And a young noblewoman, at that?
So much for the question critics have argued for centuries: Why does Othello fall prey to jealousy so fast, so easily? He and Desdemona are vastly different in age, race, religion, money, life experience and class background. They know so little of each other Desdemona blithely informs Emilia, Iago’s wife, that Othello is incapable of jealousy: “I think the sun where he was born / Drew all such humours from him.” Right. As if. On top of all that, they’re wed for less than a day when Iago begins digging at them. The more likely question is, under pressure, why wouldn’t they start coming apart?
This Second Thought Othello has a thoroughly spare, black-box setting (there’s not even a credited set designer). But the combat fatigues the actors wear plant this marital tragedy in its proper military context. Othello takes place amid the war of empires between Venice and Turkey for control of trade in the Mediterranean. Much of it’s even set on an army base. This is very much a world of ranks and salutes and pecking orders – hence, the bitter rivalries and drunken quarrels that ensue.
But Ferrell has tried to up the immediacy of a beleaguered black leader (the only set decorations are banners with Allen’s face and the words HERO and LEADER boldly printed on them in red. Why not “HOPE” or ‘CHANGE”?). The Duke of Venice is here a blond duchess, more of a bureaucrat, really, played by Danielle Pickard. So it’s clear: We’re meant to see the Moor and the duchess as President Obama and Hillary Clinton.
It’s a clever enough contemporary spin, but it adds relatively little to what the production already makes plain: Racism still bleeds us today — badly. But Ferrell’s trendy-newsy overlay on Othello’s racial politics doesn’t distract us, either. It just doesn’t matter much.
What does weaken some of the show’s effectiveness is the fuzziness of the other characters. As Desdemona, Morgan Garrett is certainly attractive enough, but she doesn’t seem to have been given much specific direction; she’s just sort of a well-off co-ed in over her head. Yet Desdemona risks everything to run off with a black foreigner, a man not of her class or age or religion, she deceives her father to do so and, when caught, she coolly informs dad — in front of the entire Venetian council — that her allegiance now lies with her new husband. The gal should have some moxie.
Maybe Jenny Ledel’s Emilia has used it all up. In a smart move, Emilia is Army Strong, suited up in full, black, SWAT battle-rattle, Kevlar vest and sidearm. Married to Iago, Emilia is, quite understandably, the voice of jaded female experience, and as a frontline soldier, such an outlook makes even more sense for her. If Ledel doesn’t convey the depths of Emilia’s bitter realism about sex (men “are all but stomachs, and we all but food … and when they are full, they belch us”), she does make for a striking presence — like Jody Foster in Silence of the Lambs, the tough little woman making her mark in a man’s world.
In contrast, Roderigo is one of Shakespeare’s saddest, silliest chumps. He loses Desdemona, he loses his money, he’s just a dim pawn in Iago’s vicious plans. But Max Hartman doesn’t go for comedy or pathos until his end. He’s just sort of clueless. Too bad; Hartman’s great with laughs, and Roderigo’s frustration with Iago’s smooth-talking hoodwinkery could be the comic relief this Othello needs to break up its stern roar of contemporary relevance.
One of the show’s best moments, for instance, is one of Shakespeare’s finest scenes of suspense. Critics often hail the ‘porter scene’ in Macbeth — when the bloody murder of Duncan is done and we know it’ll be discovered. And here comes a comic interlude, stalling everything, as the drunken gatekeeper fumbles to answer the door to find out who’s pounding on it. The scene is a stand-out bit of timing and theater: The audience is on tenterhooks, so we’re riveted on any silly drunk shtick the gatekeeper pulls, all the while knowing, everything for Macbeth is about to go straight to hell.
So, too, the hushed moment when Othello, bent on murder, slips into the bedchamber of Desdemona. Who’s there? she asks the darkness. Othello?
Long silence — and then softly, Aye, Desdemona.
This is Allen at his conflicted, quiet best. In fact, the more tender Othello is here, the more appalling and stretched-out the tension becomes. It’s like holding your breath in a horror film — right before the slaughter starts. We know the Moor’s course is set, Desdemona is doomed, yet Othello can’t help but love her still. So he tells her to say her prayers — and Allen gently strokes her hair.
It’s Second Thought’s scaled-down Othello at its stark essence. An intimate little scene of a brutal, foolish, tragic murder.