Faced with interpreting William Shakespeare, some directors think they’ve been handed a badminton shuttlecock to bat around. Who can blame them? After all, what’s a fella to do with works revived so frequently? How does a guy or a gal make his/her treatment stand out from what’s preceded it in such large numbers — especially in terms of the warhorse tragedies. New and fancy staging ideas are often considered the answer as opposed to a close reading of the text to see what in it may not have been previously understood or well conveyed.
The measure of such badminton productions becomes, How skillfully has the bird been lofted and for how long? More often than not, innovations fly thick and fast in the first two or three acts of a particular play (nowadays adding up to the first act of a two-act presentation) before screeching to a halt. What has occurred is clear: The director and his crew spent the early rehearsal weeks painstakingly putting a cluster of clever notions into gear and then realized, as the first performance loomed, that there was no time to do anything with the rest of the play but get it on its feet and pray.
Robert Richmond’s promenade approach to Othello is, sorry to say, a prime example of this running-out-of-steam situation. Richmond, who’s been racking up an uneven record with his Aquila Theatre Company mountings, has imagined a number of intriguing things to do to this play about jealousy and unmitigated evil. They multiply in the first hour or so of his trimmed offering, starting with his immediately bringing on Iago (Anthony Cochrane) to deliver one of his insidious monologues. (As written, the character is introduced in conversation with the malleable Roderigo, played here by Louis Butelli.)
Richmond, who’s also credited with adapting the play, has also had the groundbreaking notion to use some of the audience members — those who’ve bought tickets as promenaders — as part of the cast. Entering after Iago has spouted his initial venom, they form the throng that heralds the victorious Othello (Lloyd Notice) upon his return to Venice. This does populate the production with the kind of mob that most modest-budget shows lack, but the drawback is that the participating patrons stand around with uncertain expressions on their faces rather than displaying great joy, as the Venetians should under the circumstances.
Eventually, the paying extras sit in two rows of folding seats; the play is performed as if the audience is at a jousting match. Subsequently, they’re signaled to shift to small tables when a lighted sign at the far end of the stage that says “Bianca’s Bar” is switched on. Now, it’s as if they’re ringsiders at a cathartic cabaret. This is amusing at first — a bowl of pretzels is placed on each table — but soon becomes disturbingly intrusive. In the final scene, the spectators nibble refreshments while the mad Othello smothers Desdemona (Kathryn Merry).
Perhaps Richmond’s most successful whim is having his supernumeraries haul in trunks halfway through Act I and produce from them large squares of white fabric that are then raised over the playing space as sails; the breeze blown into the proceedings is like a welcome breeze sending ships gliding across water. Less persuasive is the fact that Othello and his soldiers wear desert fatigues as they invade Cyprus. (The intention, it seems obvious, is to make the audience think “Iraq.”) In Bianca’s Bar, members of the cast — and audience folks who are coaxed to join in — turn into energized warriors on a major debauche, writhing mosh-pit-like to house music. (Anthony Cochrane wrote the production’s original tunes; producer Peter Meineck and director Richmond designed the sails, the fatigues, and Desdemona’s swingy contemporary dressed; Meineck is the lighting designer.)
In addition to the above ideas, Richmond and his actors have crafted a number of new takes on Shakespeare’s familiar figures as they pay the wages of jealousy and ambition. It may be that Anthony Cochrane’s Iago is the least reconfigured figure — and, for that reason, is the most effective. The stocky Cochrane plays dramatic literature’s most hissable villain as a tough sergeant. This Iago greatly enjoys his devilish nature and couldn’t be more delighted with himself when scheming to undermine the vaulting Cassio, to dupe the dopey Roderigo, to gull the inflexible Othello. Lisa Carter’s Emilia, now an enlisted woman and smart in her fatigues, is a straightforward and intelligent realization of the role.
Louis Butelli, long a company mainstay, makes Roderigo funnier than he usually is by adapting a skittering, narrow-shouldered walk. Whenever he’s onstage, he constantly makes the audience wonder what he’s going to do next. Tom Tate rather slyly keeps Cassio shifting from arrogant to appealing, the character’s aspirations registering as blunt one moment and sympathetic the next. Richard Willis plays three roles and is okay in all of them but Heather Murdock gives a thoroughly unpolished performance as bar proprietor and girl-on-the-make Bianca. She really needs to rethink what she’s doing.
Kathryn Merry and director Richmond have collaboratively created a substantially different tragic heroine, one who strolls about in heels and looks as if she’s just downed a few Cosmos at a singles haunt. Her Desdemona seems true to Othello in her fashion but just as interested in a flirtation with Cassio; this may be the first time I’ve seen a Desdemona who provided fuel for Othello’s repeatedly cry, “The cause.” As for Lloyd Notice’s Othello, he cuts a fine figure and, in the earlier scenes, couldn’t be more convincing as the kind of officer that men unquestioningly follow into battle. When, however, he begins to fall for the cruel line that Iago hands him and loses his cool, the heat is never tempered. From then on, he declaims like a Southern senator during a filibuster. It never occurs to him — or, evidently, Richmond — that outrage and puzzlement can sometimes be exhibited in muted tones. Notice’s Othello loves not wisely but too loudly, and Robert Richmond’s Othello loves itself not wisely but too uncritically for its own good.