Shakespeare Repertory artistic director Barbara Gaines has delivered an “Othello” that, among other things, attempts to interpret the play as a commentary on racism. In her production notes, Gaines say she “finds the pervasive and incessant clash of two cultures” at the heart of Shakespeare’s tragedy.
To remind audiences that Othello’s roots are far removed from the play’s Venetian setting, Gaines has spiced the production with the ominous sound of African drums and fiery native dances. It is an interesting approach, but one that ultimately seems at odds with the story and the characters Shakespeare created.
Whatever one makes of Gaines’ take on the script, however, her “Othello” is doomed by the unfortunate casting of Paul Butler in the title role. Butler was an effective but low-key presence last season in Peter Sellars’ controversial staging of “The Merchant of Venice” at the Goodman Theatre. Here he is miscast. Lacking the commanding authority of a military leader, Butler delivers his lines so softly much of the time that he barely registers onstage.
The rest of the cast acquit themselves well. Deborah Staples is particularly memorable as the emotionally tortured Desdemona. Demonstrating a solid command of Shakespeare’s verse, Steve Pickering is a chillingly villainous Iago. Ian Barford and Greg Vinkler also are quite good as, respectively, Desdemona’s would-be love interest Cassio and her father, Brabantio.
With the help of superb work from her design team, Gaines’ period production, set in the 1870s, looks great in the Ruth Page Theater, a difficult space to make work for theater. Donald Eastman has provided Gaines with a long, raked-thrust playing area. Frances Aronson’s crisp and finely detailed lighting enhances the drama. Nan Cibula-Jenkins’s elegant costumes are a fine addition to the production.