I know I'm not the only critic in Dallas who was startled by the announcement that Kitchen Dog artistic director Dan Day had chosen Chris Carlos to play the title role in Othello. Carlos is one of the most charismatic performers working on our stages, a fellow who radiates good will and humane intelligence and a beleaguered determination to keep his feet planted on terra firma even as everything cracks and churns beneath him.
Those qualities make him a natural for both romantic and dark comedies, where a successful protagonist must seduce us into trotting right behind him, no matter how murky or treacherous the land into which he ventures. Carlos can turn even the grumpiest ticket-buyer into a loyal, curious puppy dog.
Which is why there's something of a sense of the master turning abruptly cruel when Carlos dons the Moorish general's jealous boots and stomps through Shakespeare's tale of insane jealousy triggered by a handkerchief. You spend much of the first half of Kitchen Dog's production of Othello alternating your opinions of Carlos. You can't help but feel there are physical limitations involved -- Carlos has a small build, and he ain't black. Fortunately, little in Shakespeare's text dictates most of our preconceptions about this revered army man driven to homicidal frenzy by a duplicitous intimate. The famous previous castings of this role, from James Earl Jones to Laurence Fishburne, are what hobble us. And as far as Dallas theatergoers' expectations of Mr. Nice Guy Carlos, he had already nicely overturned them with an especially cruel Petruchio in last year's Kitchen Dog staging of The Taming of the Shrew.
McKinney Avenue Contemporary
3120 McKinney Ave.
Through November 14
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So I came to the conclusion while watching Othello that Carlos does possess the chops, if not the stature, to smother Desdemona in her sleep. The problem is director Dan Day, who makes his version simultaneously overwrought and weakly designed. Kitchen Dog's strong suit has never been design: Your attention doesn't particularly linger over its lighting or costumes. But whether it's the adrenaline-fired slapstick in The Taming of the Shrew or the big-top parallels in The Glass Menagerie, the Dog has a winning track record of marrying concepts to classics with confidence and clarity. Yet in Othello, the spare costumes by Valerie Liberta (the cast seems to have ventured toward the back of their own closets for these deliberately, depressingly nondescript togs) and the storm-cloud-colored sharp angles of E. Lee Smith's dreary sets clash with the histrionic tone of some of the performances. Carlos, in particular, has apparently been directed to shout his way through the entire second half of this show.
As with any production, it's difficult to lay praise or blame between actor and director for moments that may be spontaneous or carefully planned out. But I'm wondering whether Carlos and Day were aware that audiences might carry their own assumptions with them about Shakespeare's Moor and thought that having the actor's voice fill up the MAC black box space would substitute for an imposing physicality. Pretty much the instant Iago (Thom Penn) starts dripping little drops of venom about the extracurricular activities of Desdemona (Samantha Montgomery) into Othello's ear, Carlos adopts a shampoo style of tragic acting -- get lathered up, rinse, and repeat. Only the suds start to accumulate until the horrific final scene carries all the heft of a soap bubble. He and we are spent, and the murder-suicide makes a watery "plop."
Carlos isn't the only problem with Kitchen Dog's Othello. Samantha Montgomery aggravates the already anemic role of Desdemona with a pale, tentative performance that makes you want to take her arm, guide her gently into a chair, and give her a pint. I liked Thom Penn as Iago much better. The fact that he didn't animate his character's betrayal with the prissy undercurrent of gay jealousy that so many performers in this role rely on made him seem fresh, but he does come across as terribly young, more brat than blackhearted schemer.
Tina Parker as Iago's wife Emilia and Max Hartman as Cassio, the lieutenant who is slandered as Desdemona's lover, make the most coherent and engrossing impressions in this production. Ultimately, they seem to be rowing against the rising tide of Chris Carlos' bellowing bombast and the designers' dishwater mediocrity. I realize I'm regarded as a heretic in theater circles, where the beauty of Shakespeare's language is considered its own reason for revival, but I've seen four productions of Othello in the last few years. I submit that theater artists should ask themselves a question before tackling Bill Shakes, who is restaged ceaselessly by companies major and minor: What can I do to make this material surprising and exciting again? With The Taming of the Shrew, Kitchen Dog accomplished both of those things. Their Othello just makes it seem like that green-eyed, hotheaded Moor is spouting off again.