It’s hard to quibble too much about free Shakespeare in a public park under the stars. It’s a pleasure to join an audience, far more diverse than the average ticket buyers and theater subscribers, in rapt attention to forceful poetry. The laughter, the outbursts of frustration wrought by dramatic irony, and the gasps of recognition are every bit as fun to observe as the "traffic of our stage." "Othello" is a great choice of plays too; No director’s note is needed to argue that Shakespeare’s take on racial politics, manipulation and romantic jealousy is as timely today as the day it was first performed.
Still, knowing how strong the material is, it’s not hard to wish for a production with more luster. While it holds audience attention, trotting at a brisk pace with excellent elocution, this one is too breezy and static. There’s no sense of risk or menace, no emotional heft. It’s a tragedy that feels like a comedy, and in fact, its characters are more often laughed at than pitied for calling the satanic Iago (James Waterston), "honest."
Part of the problem here seems to be a lack of vision from director, Steve Maler. His actors, most of whom speak in their natural accents while others affect an antique faux British formality, are clad in 1940’s dress for reasons that are never made evident. They perform in front large stone-looking wall with an abstract indentation and a blue pallor, suggesting, well, very little really. His main players maintain an even level of emotion, with plenty of shouting and pacing throughout, while his supporting cast seems awkwardly restrained, never quite knowing how much improvised vocalization or freedom of movement is appropriate for the celebration of a military victory or a night out at the bar.
The standout in the cast is the talented Commonwealth veteran and Trinity Rep. member, Fred Sullivan, Jr., who brings a Jacky Gleanson-esque bluster to the role of Barbantio, the bigoted Venetian senator who demands legal action from the Duke (John McGinnis) when upon learning that his daughter Desdemona (Marianna Bassham) has taken up with Othello, (Seth Gilliam), a dark-skinned outsider. The rest are watchable enough, but never seems to swing for the rafters.
"Othello" is an exercise in seduction. The title character has overcome his status as a a distrusted minority to gain the role of general at a time of war and the hand of Desdemona, a graceful beauty from a prominent white family, viewed by Venetians as "perfection." His charm is a mix of confidence and humility that inspires his allies while driving his enemies to hysteria. The audience must love Othello in order to feel the tragedy that ensues when his passions are released from their stoic’s cage and cruelly misdirected by Iago. For his part, the wily Iago must be an even greater seducer. He must woo Barbantio’s wrath, Roderigo’s purse, Othello’s innermost trust and, most crucially, he must woo the audience, who love Othello, as accomplices in the hero’s undoing. How will he do it? Partly by being the one character who takes us into his confidence, partly because he’s just so damned clever, and partly because he revels in his work, and his glee at winning foils Othello’s disciplined restraint.
Commonwealth’s "Othello" is a bit short on seduction. Gilliam’s general is likable enough, but he’s a bit too casual and free to really be commanding or to build to a boil. Bassham’s Desdemona certainly looks the part with her blonde hair and pale, statuesque form wrapped in a golden gown, but her manner is a bit brash for an embodiment of grace. Waterston’s Iago is a bit frantic. He does a lot of cavorting, and, speaking in his voice’s upper register, he squeaks when over-excited. He does a fine job of charming his victims and convincing us of his sliminess, but what he never does, is stop and let us in. This is a problem, because you can’t really grasp what’s so powerfully frightening about Iago if you don’t fall prey to his charm.
So there are plenty of improvements to be wished for, but, in the end, it’s still "Othello," and it’s still offered for free under the stars, on a grassy lawn, in the middle of the city. It’s still not a bad way to spend an August evening in Boston.
The Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s "Othello" plays on Boston Common through August 15.