Review: Austin Shakespeare’s “Othello”
Tragedy is tricky. In order to pull on the heartstrings or evoke the kind of sympathy that brings a tear to your eye, it has to offer characters that seem either realistic or so far beyond reality that we’re willing to suspend our disbelief and inhabit an alternate universe.
Austin Shakespeare’s production of “Othello,” playing now through March 2 in the Rollins Studio Theater at the Long Center, falls rather unfortunately in between the realms of subtlety and melodrama – seemingly unable to decide which direction to turn.
As a result, and in spite of some otherwise strong performances from the cast, the show fails to obtain the kind of emotional investment that good tragedy requires.
Part of the confusion stems from design. Lucie Cunningham’s very realistic period costumes set the play in the colonial era – with spotless naval uniforms for the officers and some lovely gowns for the women in the show. These outfits stand in stark contrast to Jason Amato’s saturated lighting and abstract set design. Amato has created a shadowy world dominated by an M.C. Escher-like platform with stairs leading to nowhere. Characters ascend and descend a triangular platform with no clear direction or motivation, while the set pieces brought on to facilitate scenes are otherwise realistic.
Similarly, the acting moves between sincerity and caricature. In his role as the treacherous Iago, Michael Miller is at times subtle and conniving, but largely veers toward over the top super-villain, replete with maniacal laughter. Under Anne Ciccolella’s direction, Miller vacillates between sniveling and ruthless in a way that comes off as inconsistent rather than calculated.
Marc Pouhé has some lovely moments as Othello, especially in his speeches at the end of the play. The actor has a beautiful voice and strong stage presence, but his performance also tends toward melodrama at times. While Pouhé captures our attention and sympathy by the end, Ciccolella’s penchant for dramatically violent flourishes results in a finale too ostentatious to take seriously.
The production is sprinkled with poignant moments and a few thought-provoking directorial choices, but it’s a long three hours to trudge through without much emotional investment in the characters.
“Othello” continues through March 2. www.austinshakespeare.org.