Second Thought Theatre does a lot of incredible work. Its artistic director, Alex Organ, is also known for his stellar contributions both onstage and off. That's why it's crushing to discover that STT's latest, a staging of Shakespeare's Othello, is such a disappointment.
On paper, everything appears great. It's directed by Joel Ferrell (his last STT credit was the the wrenching Gruesome Playground Injuries), stars Organ as the "honest" villain Iago and features the design work of STT core crew Aaron Johansen (lighting), Jennifer Ables (costumes) and John Flores (sound). In practice, this nearly three-hour production would be akin to a sleeping pill if it weren't so darn loud.
Let me clarify: There are moments in Othello where the loudness works. Flores' electric music choice, which comes too infrequently between scenes, and the sound effects of war create a jarring, unpredictable atmosphere. The rest of the time though, the only emotion any of the actors seem able to tap into is fury, whether the scene warrants it or not.
The most egregious offender is actor Tyrees Allen, who is no stranger to Shakespeare (Lincoln Center, Dallas Theater Center, and Shakespeare Dallas populate his credits). That said, his growling delivery muddles most lines, making him nearly impossible to comprehend when he raises his voice. There also isn't much to his physical performance, whereas the rest of the cast at least attempts to convey action and emotion through body language. When his devoted wife, Desdemona (Morgan Garrett), girlishly covers him with kisses, she may as well be smooching a marble column.
Organ confidently weaves around the immersive setting, letting only a rounded hunch to his shoulders betray when his confidence is wavering. The rest of the time he is a testosterone-fueled soldier, intent on destroying lives for his own personal gain and enjoyment. Organ plays the famous villain as a man who is compelled to manipulate — until the end, when his plotting has been discovered and he is condemned to a life of misery for his crimes. Then his Iago is a cackling psychopath, with evil bubbling up from within and all his steady resolve vanished. Why do we get two completely different villains? Both have their merits, but by playing two versions instead of committing to one interpretation of Iago loses all the character's credibility.
The women of the play are more consistent, and it's no surprise that Jenny Ledel makes her character the most interesting and well-rounded in the show. As Emilia, Iago's unwilling wife and Desdemona's maidservant, Ledel is packing heat while the men sport knives. In fact, it's curious why Ables costumed this character with so much protective padding while the soldiers get camo cargo pants and crew-neck T's. Whatever the reason, Ledel is still a spitfire, invigorating sparring matches with Iago and daring to reveal the truth about her husband's deadly plans.
Garrett is soft and delicate in a silky, flowered slip dress, adding another role to her resume where she mainly exists for others to swoon over her beauty. Danielle Pickard's Duchess of Venice is a straight-laced bureaucrat, but her tarted-up Bianca allows her to let loose and have some fun with the saucy role.
It's Blake McNamara, however, who most seems to understand how to deliver an eloquent and honest performance in the Shakespearean realm. As Cassio, the young soldier whom a jealous Iago insinuates is sleeping with Desdemona, McNamara is straightforward and engaging. He also speaks clearly and emotionally at an understandable volume, apparently realizing that in Bryant Hall, the audience is literally only inches away. Subtlety, thy name is Cassio.
Second Thought Theatre's Othello runs through August 8