ANYONE CLAMORING for more "traditional Shakespeare after all the radical artsy-fartsiness in these part should zip over to the American Shakespeare Theatre's touring Othello--and be damned. For this glum and unimaginatively "straight" production, with the aid of a flamboyant English directorial hand, skews and disfigures the original play far more effectively than the most startling new metaphor or outrageous directorial noodling. Tom Stoppard could not have done it better.
The new play is admittedly fascinating--much better than Richard III but in nearly the same genre. A clever, amoral officer is passed over a for a promotion and rages impotently against his superior (a foreigner at that!). Then he stymbles onto the great man,s weakness: a touchingly intense faith in his new bride's innocence and honesty. The officer's lust for revenge consumes him, and he spends the later half of the play ebuliently chiselling on this great, remote mound called the Moor, eventually compelled to lie and kill to keep the plot in motion. When the poor Moor finally snuffs his sweet wife, and, the officer realizes--too late!--the error of his ways and feverishly repents as the curtain descends.
As the protagonist, Iago, Christopher Plummer gives a shrewdly structured yet hearteningly scenery-chewing Performance--careful and nuanced enough to dispel Colerdge's nagging "motivelessmalignity" tag. At the start he is sleazily pthetic, a bundle of unchannelled energy expressed in random, hoarsely inexpressive shouts and struts. When not center stage he is erect and twitching against a back wall, his eyes glazed as if his brains were being barbecued. He is no Mahiavelli, but a quick-witted opportunist handed a turkey and a shotgun. Recongnizing this, his frame swells with cookiness. It's gestures become honed, and his voice pierces effortlessly through the fog of general ignorance. He's pure enough at first to earn the epithet "honest": "Beware, my lord, of jealousy," he says firmly, and villain and councilor splendidly maege. When he cries out in solioquy that he will "enmesh" the Moor, Plummer squceezes himself into the most virile villain ever to singe a stage, a mad master of improvisation, and he rides this evergy,thrillingly, untill his objective is accomplished.
Plummer could overpower a strong Moor, but James Earl Jones is the most oddly recessive Othello imaginable, laurence Olivier once complained while rehearsing his own exhasting Othello that the part was all climaxes. Jones sadly pretends they don't exist, as if rising to one would obligate him to go for them all. He enters with great dignity, immense and unthreatening grandfatherly, a solemn Buddha. His words seem to wigh as much as he does--they come out undifferentiated, as if he'd learned them phonetically (tough this is preferable to his occasional bursts of temper, when he speaks swiftly and unintelligibly). His vision of Eden in Karen Dotrice's ghoulishly starved, black-lipped Desdemona seems weirdly fatuous,even half-witted. Throughout, there's something private about his grief.
More Kagemusha than war lord, the performance lacks daring and danger--lago wins points on evergy alone. When a reading dies work--his poignant, "the pity of it lago; oh, Iago, the pity of it," for example--the moment is improperly led into, susteained and followed through, so it doesn't reverberate as it must. When Jones does attempt something strenuous, it comes across ludicrous and perfunctory: His fit of epilespy suggests T.V.S. Ginsu chef after accidentally dismembering himself.
ROBERT FLETCHER'S SET--a vertical knotty-panelled interior with assorted window and balconies--recalls the days when sets were inorganic pegs on which to hang the actors, rather than metaphorical expressions of a production's point of view. But then again, this production has no point of view. Director Peter Coe brings nothing but some undignified nose-rubbing to the tender relationship between Othellow and Desdemona.
On the other hand, he and his fight designer B. H. Barry could make a grand horror film. Bary has devised some grisly and hair-raising swordplay, the air aswish with deadly blades as a drunken, robotized Cassio slashes anything on all sides; or the stunning moment when lago plants a kiss fully on Rodrigo's lips and knife between his ribs (Plummer is a murderouly bisexual monster). Then there are images worthy of Halloween: Desdomona, tiny and exposed before her night table, singing a bed-time song, with Amelia's sudden entrances from the shadows creating delightful frissons; Desdemona draped horizontally across the bed as Othello enters to kill her, her long blonde hair hanging over one side, a delicate, bare leg over the other (Do all young wives sleep like that?); and, predictably, a subsequent stabbing and strangling both horrifying and erotic.
The supporting cast is uneven, Dotrice's Desdemona begins pallidly but grows in stature and Graeme Campbell is a robust and sympathetic Rodrigo when he forgets he's playing an idiot. But Aideen O'Kelly's Amilla is dowdy refugee form a detergent commercial, confusing ingenuousness with imbecility, and she is embarrassingly inadequate vocally in the last scene. And a special nod to Paticia Maurceri's grotesque, campy and mush-mouthed Bianca--the actress should be swiftly jettisoned.
The opening-night audience enjoyed the show, and why not? Plummer was dynamite, and there was lkots of sex and violence. But what of Othello? What of the raw titan who embraces ciovilization and true love only to re-discover the chaos, the jungle beneath, the pity and sadnss of human inconstancy,of vows broken because they never existed, of grief as boundless as the universe? Well.... there's enough of that in real life.