Equity guest artist Robert Mitchell plays the title role in Othello, the season--closer at the St. Louis Shakespeare Company. Mitchell's first act is very good; his Othello is centered and self-confident, a warrior with quiet dignity rather than an imposing physical presence. When he describes how Desdemona fell in love with him listening to the tales of his exploits, we buy it and can understand why the Venetians venerate him.
But when the time comes for Othello's jealous transformation, Mitchell and director Ted Gregory choose to play it all at once rather than gradually. At the end of the production's first act, Othello has literally worked himself into a fit, already prepared to kill Desdemona. There's nowhere to go from there, and by the time Iago presents Othello with the fateful handkerchief as proof of his wife's supposed infidelity, it's just more of the same until the tragic and prolonged ending. Mitchell doesn't use the play's language to show us Othello's disintegrating emotional state but, rather, emotes against it, and this sudden turn to naturalism is a letdown from his clear, concise use of Shakespeare's words in the first half of the show.
There are some fine moments, mainly provided by Mitchell and by Sara Renschen as Desdemona, Lavonne Byers as Emilia and Todd Gillenardo as Roderigo. Kevin Beyer makes a very strong impression in his too-brief role as Desdemona's father. The set and lighting design, by M.T. Schmidt and David Makuch, respectively, provide a large, dramatic and colorful playing field that befits the big emotions of the story.
Any production of Othello confronts the Iago problem: Why does Othello believe Iago rather than his wife? If their bond is that strong, we'd better see it. And why does the villain have it in for the Moor? Iago gives lip service to several reasons -- he was passed over for promotion; he suspects Othello of sleeping with his wife, whom he doesn't seem to care for -- but none of them seems sufficient. The SLSC production doesn't solve this dilemma; there's no clear choice of what's driving Iago. It doesn't help that Jeff Mattlin's Iago neither charms nor convinces. Although in some scenes we glimpse the wheels turning behind his manipulation of the other characters, too often Mattlin falls back on being merely nefarious. He doesn't change masks to fit his victims, nor does he seem to enjoy the scheming. This Iago isn't duplicitous, just monotonous.