As part of the National Endowment for the Arts' ambitious plan to present touring productions of Shakespeare in all 50 states, the esteemed Guthrie Theater of Minneapolis has landed at Boston's Cutler Majestic Theatre with a carefully designed, workmanlike "Othello."
There is plenty to admire in the Guthrie production. Director Joe Dowling, who is also the theater's artistic director, and designer Patrick Clark, who handled both sets and costumes, have chosen an impressionistically Victorian style, which they execute with great attention to detail. Louvered French doors effectively close in among pillars as the tragedy tightens around Othello and Desdemona, and Matthew Reinert works magical changes with simple lighting cues -- especially in an early shift from Venetian mists to Cypriot sun. Technically, in short, this is a top-flight touring show. Even Scott W. Edwards's sound design, though it uses the portentous thunderclap several times too often, can't be faulted on grounds of craft. The problem, though, is that all the Victorian bustles and ruffles tend to smother the pure tragedy of misplaced trust and manufactured jealousy that lies at the heart of this play.
It's not just the costumes that have too many ruffles. Vocally, the Guthrie seems to favor a high-flying British-ish tone that may feel "Shakespearean" but too often gets in Shakespeare's way. Too many speeches are declaimed, not spoken; too many words are polished to a distracting sheen.
It didn't help Wednesday night that Lester Purry's Othello grew increasingly hoarse and indistinct as the night went on. Though he had some fine moments -- particularly with a spectacularly deep, drawn-out reading of the line "Arise, dark vengeance" and some powerfully wrought raisings of fists against heaven -- Purry sometimes seemed too soft, too inward, for the soldierly Othello.
Curiously, Bill McCallum went in the opposite direction as Iago. Loud, brash, and raucous, his early moments seemed wildly miscalculated for the cunning villain. Once he turned quietly serpentine in the soliloquies, McCallum's strategy made more intellectual sense; his was a Iago, it seemed, who blunted his edges in public to make them cut more deeply in private. It's an interesting choice, but not a completely persuasive one.
What's odd, given the Victorian motif, is how crude some of the physical business became. Every double entendre was underscored, as heavily as possible, with thrusting hips or lascivious grins. And Othello's murder of Desdemona became a reductively sexual act, with him bestriding her as her pale legs flailed and thrashed. It is, let's repeat, just great that the NEA is sending companies around the country to do Shakespeare. It would be even greater if this production were more even, more imaginative, and more attuned to the heart of the play.