Be afeard, the aisle is full of noises. Also the stage, the exits and the stairwell in Second Thought Theatre’s slam-bang-hollerin’ production of Othello at Bryant Hall.
What’s with all the Shoutspeare going on this summer? Shakespeare Dallas put microphones on all the actors in its outdoor Romeo & Juliet and still had them blowing out the amps yelling the dialogue. The death scenes of those title characters lost a lot of pathos as the young lovers howled their sweet farewells into the night air.
Othello, staged in Second Thought’s intimate in-the-round black box theater, where patrons are so close to actors you can watch sweat droplets roll down their necks (yeah, it’s hot in there, too), is another noisy three-hour scream-a-thon. On top of the cacophony of male voices, director Joel Ferrell has actors slamming doors in and out of the theater and clashing metal garbage can lids against the walls. Between scenes, up comes a soundtrack of ear-splitting headbanger music. They should post trigger warnings for tinnitus sufferers. There’s more fortissimo than Stomp.
Instead of acting the emotional twists and turns of Shakespeare’s sexiest play, Second Thought’s cast just goes for volume. That’s too bad because this is the Bard’s only tragedy based solely on who’s humping whom. No subplots, no secondary romances, certainly no happy ending for anyone in it. It’s the play that dubs jealousy a “green-eyed monster” and describes the dirty deed as “making the beast with two backs.”
Done well, Othello throbs with lusty yearnings. We need to feel a steamy sexual tension between the Moor Othello, a powerful black general, and his hot white wife, Desdemona, who keeps trying to drag her husband back to the bedroom for more “tupping.” We want sizzling vibes between Othello’s psychopathic lieutenant, Iago, and Desdemona; and between her and Iago’s other nemesis, the soldier Cassio. Hell, everyone in Venice wants to slide between the sheets with this woman, and it’s the black man who’s sleeping with her, which makes the racist villain Iago furious. Iago gets his revenge by catfishing Othello, planting Desdemona’s handkerchief in Cassio’s bed and then hinting the pair are two-backing. That’s the makings of some good old-fashioned Shakesporn right there.
So what does Second Thought Theatre director Ferrell do with Othello? He de-sexes it and turns it into a contest of who can declaim his or her lines the loudest. He’s also miscast an older actor, Tyrees Allen, in the title role, opposite a much too green actress, Morgan Garrett, as Desdemona. No chemistry. No sexual spark. Their embraces are awkward, like she’s kissing an uncle. Allen would be a better King Lear, if Lear were portrayed as a retired prize-fighter with bad knees and mushy diction (he’s hard to understand). Garrett, tall, curvy and blond, squeals, bounces and scrunches her face into unpleasant expressions. Squeezed into a ghastly pink satin sheath dress for the whole play, her Desdemona moves about the stage like a cocktail waitress checking to see who needs refills before last call. Before her death scene, she wanders in circles singing “Amazing Grace,” which earns Ferrell more demerits for bad directorial ideas.
As Iago, Second Thought’s artistic director Alex Organ knows how to speak the dense language of this play — lines like “Let us be conjunctive in our revenge of him” and the speech about bodies being gardens “sterile with idleness or manured with industry” — with adequate skill. It’s just that he roars nearly every word at thundering decibel levels. He’s so much more effective in the conversational tone he uses in Iago’s direct soliloquies to the audience. Iago is the only character who shares his inner thoughts with us in Othello. He wants us on his side as he schemes to destroy Othello and Cassio. We hate him anyway.
For all its sound and fury, this modern-dress production lacks much visual pop. There’s a trend in Dallas theaters lately of designing sets and costumes in dreary neutral tones of gray and black. Othello has no scenery other than two low gray platforms on the black stage floor. Costume designer Jennifer Ables dresses most of the men in black tees and camo-patterned pants and jackets. Roderigo (Max Hartman), another of Desdemona’s cast-offs, wears a terribly baggy business suit. The suit on Montana (Taylor Harris) was splitting at the seams on opening night. Desdemona has the one dress, so ill-fitting her undergarments look like they’re straining to get out. Iago’s wife, Emilia (Jenny Ledell not blaring as much as the others and thus more enjoyable to listen to) is encased in heavy layers of black military uniform, a black body armor vest and combat boots. She also wears a gun and holster.
Let’s talk weapons. In so many of these modern-look, gimmick-laden Shakespeare productions, characters now brandish pistols and rifles instead of swords and daggers. Sometime they shoot them, sometimes they don’t. In Dallas Theater Center’s modernized Lear a few years ago, the king’s guards carried AK-47s but ended up fighting each other with wooden sticks. In Second Thought’s Othello, Emilia, serving as Desdemona’s bodyguard, pulls her pistol on evil Iago at the end. But instead of blasting the bastard, she sets the gun down next to Othello and then dies of stab wounds.
Othello, having strangled his wife, stabs himself in the leg a few times and drops dead. Cassio (Blake McNamara, looking like the young James Spader) is knifed, too. The gun, contrary to the advice of Chekhov (if you show it in the first act, you’d better shoot it in the last), never goes off.
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Thanks to all the shouting, however, you’ll leave this Othello with ears ringing like the echoes of a firing squad.