The Aquila Theater Co.’s “Othello” marks the kickoff production for the National Endowment for the Arts’ “Shakespeare in America” touring initiative, which will bring multiple productions of the Bard’s plays to communities in all 50 states. A lot is riding on this project; indeed, if the press surrounding it can be believed — and who doesn’t believe the press? — the very future of federal arts funding hangs in the balance. The political reception to the tour actually seems off to a good start: Congress has just allocated an additional million to send Alabama Shakespeare to domestic military bases with “Macbeth.” The artistic reception, though, won’t be as generous for this first effort, which places fine enunciation of Shakespearean verse well above the fleshing out of the Bard’s arguably most harrowing, skin-crawling psychological drama.
The Aquila, which is based at NYU’s Center for Ancient Studies, has achieved some acclaim for its past stagings of Greek tragedies using masks and Shakespearean comedies employing contemporary settings. That experience, alas, proves counterproductive to “Othello,” resulting in a flat, undramatic rendering of this racially charged tragedy.
The principal actors — Lloyd Notice as the noble Moor and Anthony Cochrane as Iago — often seem to be acting with masks on, announcing their characters rather than playing them, throwing nuance and depth out the window. Notice’s earnest, overheated approach strangely tends to transform Othello into an almost comical figure — he’s something of a goofball with a schoolboy crush on Desdemona (a pretty but pretty bland Kathryn Merry). There’s no nobility here, no inner strength that has led Othello to the pinnacle of a military career despite his status as an outsider.
Up against this Othello, Iago’s task couldn’t be easier; Othello gives in to the deceit with nary a fight, going from goofball to psycho in a split second. Cochrane’s rather dowdy Iago comes off not as the expert manipulator but as a stock villain from melodrama. There are times when Cochrane seems ready to twirl his moustache, if only his whiskers extended far enough for him to do so.
Despite bringing minimal drama to the stage, Cochrane and Notice, both native Britons, speak the verse with conviction. As a demonstration of Shakespearean pronunciation and pace, they provide a model. Alas, they also lose the dramatic context amid the fluidity of their speaking skills. Grand public speeches have the same tone and volume as intimate scenes, and even the same staging, with director Robert Richmond pointing the actors out to the audience throughout. There is thus little separation between Iago’s most famous soliloquies, where he plots out his plan, drawing the audience into his conspiracy, and the scenes where he puts his preparations into action.
Cochrane, in essence, doesn’t speak to the audience so much as at them, and he and Notice make no stronger a connection in the course of their scenes together. Nobody else in the ensemble fares any better, although once Othello and Iago are miscast, it’s pointless to pick at the supporting players.
It’s a good thing that this production is not targeted to tour military bases, since the depiction of the wartime setting is among the least satisfying elements in a decidedly mediocre production. Peter Meineck, who heads Aquila, and Richmond collaborated on the production design for this vague contemporary setting. The military dress of the players is modern camouflage outfits with big guns, and the supporting players march around in stiff-kneed martial style. It’s all thoroughly inauthentic, flattening the richness of the play even more, making it seem no more than the dumb show that Richmond has added as a prologue.
It’s to be hoped that future efforts of this new federal project will prove more daring, or at least more enticingly entertaining. This “Othello” really does come across as government-sponsored theater, as flavorless as a school lunch consisting of tofu, hold the sauce.
Chicago Shakespeare Theater is up next with “Romeo and Juliet.”