Mo' better Moor

The Shakespeare Festival of Dallas production of Othello cries out for color

The standout performer here is Connie Nelson as Emelia, wife to Iago, maidservant to Desdemona, and unwitting accessory in a pair of vicious murders. Luckily, Emelia has most of her scenes in the final act, which allows the acerbic, soulful Nelson to very nearly rescue the play at its bloody climax. Attending to Desdemona on the night of her murder, Emelia delivers the tragedy's plea for accepting the humanity and fallibility of women. Smoking a cigarette, her legs crossed casually as she sits at the edge of the stage, Nelson is three parts Eve Arden to one part neglected wife. She seems to have earned a Ph.D.'s worth of wisdom about human relationships from her strange, unsatisfying marriage to Iago. Nelson is prickly and world-weary, intuitive and vulnerable, and her sorrow at losing Desdemona registers far more powerfully than Othello's.

She is, in short, an exception in a cast that too often appears to be reciting Shakespearean verse instead of feeling it. You get the idea that director Rene Moreno is himself tired of the gimmicky nature that mars so many contemporary Shakespearean productions. Other than its mysterious change of scenery, this version feels like a defense of the play's textual integrity. That would be an admirable stand if only Moreno and company had worked harder to find the pulse beneath the story's skin. No matter how many times this Othello is pricked, he doesn't bleed.

If William Shakespeare is a great writer who's suffered from overexposure, Clifford Odets is a mediocre one primed for a rediscovery. Odets was the ultrasensitive scribe, ardent leftist, and champion of the little guy whose theatrical meditations on the loss of idealism earned him ecstatic critical praise in the New York theater of the '20s and '30s. His Communist sympathies as well as his ego were legendary, which probably explains why he passed out of fashion so quickly and has never enjoyed a real revival: His bombastic studies of the moral consequences of "selling out," however passionate, seem as quaintly anachronistic as American Communism itself.

Still, tough guys from Mamet to Stoppard owe a big debt to Odets, who was a pioneer in making street slang a legitimate expression on the American stage. Mamet will (perhaps) age better than Odets because the "F word" isn't poised for extinction anytime soon. Odets mostly bypassed profanity in favor of colloquialisms and popular slang of the time, which is the primary reason much of his work provokes giggles these days.

Give credit to director Kyle McClaran and his excellent cast that Richardson Theatre Centre's production of Odets' Hollywood melodrama, The Big Knife, makes you laugh in all the right places, and even manages to wring some genuine pathos from a morality play whose heroes and villains are so simplistically drawn, you imagine Odets distributing black and white hats among the cast at dress rehearsal.

Charlie Castle (Jim Sullivan) is the dashing alcoholic movie actor who sold his soul to studio chief Mona Hoff (Kelly Lawrence) in exchange for stardom. He is surrounded by people who love him but fear his self-destructive impulses and the Hollywood environment that encourages it: his long-suffering wife, Marion (Sara Lovett), who's sick of suffering; his big-hearted Jewish agent, Nat (Donna Fotshky); and his publicist, Buddy (Charles Alexander), who took the fall for Castle's drunk-driving accident that resulted in death. Trouble is, there's a tarty contract player named Dixie (Annie Savage, whose wonderful character appears far too briefly) who knows the truth behind that particular incident and has the unfortunate habit of spilling her guts after a few martinis.

If Pocket Sandwich Theatre or Pegasus Theatre were to mount this show, they'd hammer away relentlessly at the audience's funny bone by emphasizing the expiration date on the play's sensibility. Of course, McClaran and his actors know full well that these characters long ago petrified into stereotypes, hence the stylization of the set, costumes (some of the most beautiful you'll see on a Dallas stage this year), performances, and the presence of Lawrence as a masked chanteuse/narrator/mime who frames the action. But there are no quotation marks here, no conspiratorial winks to the audience. Those performers who are over the top (Lawrence as the sharklike Mona is particularly grandiose, but also commanding) are inspired by an honest search for the play's good intentions, not the jaded desire to let ticket buyers know the actor is smarter than his or her character.

This production of The Big Knife benefits enormously from the relative obscurity of its script. But because McClaran and his cast refuse to play it ironic, a choice that has itself become horrendously, tiresomely trite, you're left to appreciate the play's strengths and understand its weaknesses as a product of its time. This is the type of homage for which any neglected author would be grateful.

The Big Knife runs through July 27. Call 699-1130.

Othello alternates with A Midsummer Night's Dream through July 28. Call 559-2782.

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