The most uneven of “Othellos” is likely to afford a revelation or two, and so it is with the Old Globe’s new production under the helm of artistic director Jack O’Brien. In the Iago of Richard Easton, O’Brien has a villain so captivating in his cunning that we almost thrill to the unfolding of his sinister designs — a guilty pleasure, but in the theater as elsewhere, you take pleasures as you find them.
The production in the Globe’s outdoor amphitheater begins in fiery fashion, with a sterling turn by Jonathan McMurtry as Brabantio, whose anger and grief at his daughter’s marriage to the Moor is conveyed with a first-rate actor’s simplicity of effect; the emotion cuts cleanly through Shakespeare’s language, leaving no barrier between actor and audience.
But emotion takes a back seat as Iago’s machinations move to center stage, though Easton’s finely shaded performance is marked by thoughtful, revealing glimpses into the dark emotional springs of Iago’s ambitions. The emotion of course, is hate born of envy and resentment, conveyed by Easton with an almost casual air that is all the more chilling. His Iago is no oily, theatrical figure of arched eyebrow and evil eye, but a man of frighteningly natural passions, whose intimate asides to the audience make us cozy accomplices to his casual cruelties. Easton makes us feel the surprised delight Iago feels as each turn of the screw drives his designs forward, and with such a charismatic actor in the role it’s impossible not to share in his pleasure.
To counteract the magnetic pull of this Iago’s charm requires a Desdemona and Othello whose ill-starred love must break our hearts, and it is this that is lacking in the Old Globe’s production. When the momentum switches from Iago’s unholy passions to Othello’s misguided one, the play runs out of steam.
Tyrees Allen cuts a fine enough figure — with shaved head and trimmed goatee, he reminds you of Keenen Ivory Wayans — and has both presence and an intelligent grasp of the language, but he’s at a loss to get across the cyclone of emotion that can turn Othello from contented husband to madly jealous murderer in a trice. Such a revolution must spring from a love as passionate as the jealousy that will supplant it; Allen’s smooth, lightly laughing Othello seems incapable of the depth of feeling that eventually finds him writhing in a fit of despair on the ground. Allen writhes gamely, but it’s utterly unconvincing.
Alas he’s matched by the elegant but bland Desdemona of Christina Haag, whose studied, graceful performance is somehow too polished to awake in us pity and terror for Desdemona’s fate. (The only terror mustered is a fear that her cleavage will burst forth from Robert Morgan’s low-cut bodice.)
We watch dry-eyed as she meets her unhappy fate, and it is only when Katherine McGrath’s Emilia registers anger and despair at the death of her mistress that the tragedy is brought home. Such is the force of feeling in McGrath’s superb turn in this small but pivotal role that her death is likely to wring tears that Desdemona’s doesn’t.
With McMurtry’s and McGrath’s fine performances in small roles bookending Easton’s accomplished turn in a larger one, O’Brien’s fluidly staged “Othello” is an oddity — a tragedy in which everything but the tragedy is powerfully played.