With its political machinations, personal and institutional racism and a scandalous interracial relationship as the tipping point, Othello is the most St. Louis-ready play in Shakespeare's canon. Othello's Venice of schemers and glad-handing backstabbers, and the twin engines of destruction men call jealousy and racism? That's us at our worst.
And it drew a capacity crowd of St. Louisans from both sides of our unspoken gulf on opening night of Shakespeare Festival St. Louis' solid if staid production of the tragedy of the Moor of Venice.
Set designer Robbie Jones has conceived a sleek look for the show, with an uncluttered stage and an all-purpose building background with a single oversize gear visible at the top. Doors set in this wall remain open in the second act, allowing a view of further gears, symbolizing both the plots that surround Othello (Billy Eugene Jones) and the tortuous workings of his own mind.
Director Bruce Longworth coaxes a similarly uncluttered performance out of his cast. The diction is sharp and lucid throughout, the language precise. Jones appropriately leads the way on this front, his voice a smooth and powerful instrument that commands attention. Justin Blanchard brings a satisfyingly oleaginous luster to Iago's grand plan of revenge and destruction. His obsequious declarations of piety and concern for Othello's well-being and his smooth conniving with Roderigo (Rudi Utter) give way to chilly monologues in which he reveals his true plans to the audience. Blanchard forges a cold, loathsome hunger at the center of Iago that's palpable even from the cheap seats.
But in the second act, as Iago's plot slithers through Othello's mind and dupes him into terrible choice after terrible choice, Jones often mistakes shouting for emotion. It makes sense as an outward sign of the breakdown of the professional soldier's discipline and self-control, but as the play progresses and the shouting gets louder, you wish he'd use it more judiciously.
More than the shouting, what undoes all the good work is the standing around and declaiming. Actors in the background stand motionless during great swaths of dialogue as the leads hit their marks, perform their lines and then reset at another point to do it again. Each performer appears to be in his own self-contained bubble, keeping distance from the others so assiduously that it becomes distracting. For much of the evening, it's like watching a radio play — easy on the ears but numbing to the eyes.
Joshua Thomas is free of this lethargy, as his Cassio strides and gestures and performs for the immense outdoor amphitheater. Even from the very back of Shakespeare Glen it's obvious when Cassio is onstage: He's the one talking and moving, a genuine man of action among these listless nobles and soldiers.
Heather Wood brings a welcome but too-brief kinetic interlude during her death scene. Here is a Desdemona who fights back, screaming and grunting and trying to overpower a man who is in this moment the vile beast Iago accuses him of being. And in that flurry of straining limbs and strangled cries, we see something that's not on the page but only comes to life on stage: tragedy writ in human-scale all-caps as an honorable, loving man kills honor and love. Is Desdemona fighting to save herself, or does she wage her desperate battle to win her love's soul back from the brink of damnation? And then Desdemona fades, and Othello sees it too, and too late.