At heart, all of William Shakespeare’s tragedies are little family dramas that explode like cluster bombs — blowing apart kingdoms, marriages, careers, lives. With Othello, it’s his being tricked into 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 a tense, emotional focus that the loose, floppier productions we typically find at the Shakespeare Festival or the Dallas Theater Center often lack. It’s like the entire drama is in a single, cinematic close-up.
So it’s a real 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 director Ferrell’s whole cacophony of crashing music, clanging set pieces and barking military drill. All of them are effective methods for amping up a show’s energy level and tension, to make this show feel bigger, have more clout, but together, they seem like it’s trying just a bit too hard to keep us jolted and alert. As we’ll see, whispered moments can be more 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 cons 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 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 . . .
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 terrific scene that suggests it. Both men, faces only inches apart, angrily shout loyalty to each other (“Now art thou my lieutenant!“) as they 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 at the start when, having eloped with Desdemona, he must face down her outraged father Brabantio (Aaron Roberts). In fact, Allen could do with more easy confidence here because Ferrell has trimmed 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, this is a man he’s never seen get angry in battle. But that’s battle — what about the home front, when this kind of man, at his age, marries for the first time?
The 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 – 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 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: Racial hatreds and misunderstandings still bleed us today — badly. But neither does Ferrell’s trendy-newsy overlay on Othello 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 coed 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 city council — that her allegiance now lies with her new husband. The gal should have some moxie.
Maybe it’s because Jenny Ledel’s Emilia has used it all up. In a smart move, Iago’s wife is Army Strong, suited up in full, black, SWAT battle-rattle, Kevlar vest and sidearm. Married to Iago, Emilia, understandably, is the voice of jaded female experience, and as a 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.
In contrast, Roderigo is one of Shakespeare’s sad, silly chumps. He loses Desdemona — whom he’s never spoken with, really — he loses his money and he’s a 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 unbearable suspense. Critics often hail the ‘porter scene’ in Macbeth — when the bloody murder’s done, we know it’ll be discovered and here comes a comic interlude, stalling everything, as the drunken gatekeeper tries to answer the door to find out who’s pounding on it so loud. Consider, instead, the hushed moment when Othello, bent on murder, slips into the bedchamber of Desdemona. Who’s there? she asks. Othello?
Long silence — and then softly, Aye, Desdemona.
This is Allen at his conflicted, quiet best. In fact, the more tender and gentle 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. 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 strokes her hair.
It’s Second Thought’s Othello at its stark essence. An intimate scene of a brutal, foolish, tragic murder.