‘Othello’: as the world turns

At Portland Center Stage, the action turns, slowly, on Iago's dime. But does it give no quarter?

During his years at the helm of Portland Center Stage, artistic director Chris Coleman has shown a keen instinct for the striking stage image, and he crafts a couple yet again at the start of his production of Othello, which opened last weekend on the Gerding Theater main stage.

As two characters, Iago and Roderigo, enter at the beginning of the play, a flickering torch held aloft contrasts the darkness and the glowering castle walls of Scott Fyfe’s imposing scenic design. But what their brief dialogue illuminates most is the essential character of Iago, who tells Roderigo forthrightly, “I am not what I am.” Flagbearer to Othello, he is bitter that the general has passed him over for a promotion, and he hints at plans for revenge: “I follow him to serve my turn upon him.”

Gavin Hoffman's Iago, turning events to his own purposes. Photo: Patrick Weishampel

Gavin Hoffman’s Iago, turning events to his own purposes. Photo: Patrick Weishampel

Turning provides the show’s next visually arresting moment, as that great gray-brown faux-stone edifice behind them begins to rotate, showing interior instead of exterior, and also one of its chief themes. The duplicitous Iago turns to the audience with one face, in openly villainous soliloquies and asides, and to the play’s other characters in another, as the much admired “honest Iago.” His schemes, in turn, turn Othello, curdling his innocent virtue into naive vengefulness and making this play – despite its relatively low kill count compared to some others – the most ethically unsettling of Shakespeare’s tragedies.

That impressive set repeatedly turns this way and that, indicating changes of scene and underlining changes of tone, and providing yet more engaging visuals, as characters stride confidently through arches and along parapets of the moving assemblage. But the more we grow accustomed to the grinding noise of the stage turntable, the more we realize that this handsome yet somewhat stiff production doesn’t deliver the sense of grinding inevitability, the stomach-turning blend of dread and clarity, that makes a truly memorable Othello.

Though Othello, “the Moor of Venice,” gets top billing (it’s his downfall that is the heart of the tragedy, after all), the play’s narrative engine and its real star is Iago, among the greatest villains in all of stage literature.

The part seems an ideal one for Gavin Hoffman, the Portland native who moved back to town a few years ago and has distinguished himself in such productions as Fifth of July with Profile Theatre and Clybourne Park last season at PCS. What augured best for this match was his Drammy-winning turn in The Tripping Point, Shaking the Tree Studio’s marvelous set of liberally reinterpreted fairy tales for the 2012 Fertile Ground festival. In the Matt Zrebski-penned solo vignette To Cape, Hoffman portrayed both the big bad Wolf and Red, in a dialog that occurs while the latter already is in the stomach of the former. Alternately feral and conflicted, innocent and sly, that performance showed an ability to play both sides of a coin, much as the Iago role does.

Daver Morrison as Othello: the mighty, fallen. Photo: Patrick Weishampel

Daver Morrison as Othello: the mighty, fallen. Photo: Patrick Weishampel

Four years ago at Artists Rep, Todd Van Voris played Iago as a cold calculator able to feign an avuncular warmth and trustworthiness, as a man who understands the codes of social interaction and the emotional levers of behavior precisely because he sees them from such a distance. In 2008 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Dan Donohue’s Iago was an easygoing sociopath, likably relaxed in the company of others, then in private, impishly delighted at his ability to think several steps ahead of everyone else. (Sorry to say, I missed Michael Mendelson’s crack at the part, in Northwest Classical Theatre Company’s 2012 production directed by former Royal Shakespeare Company associate director Bill Alexander.)

Hoffman, by contrast, plays him more as a soldier, a man’s man whose upright posture hides a stunted soul. Hoffman shows a fox-like charm at some moments (smoothly conniving Roderigo under the guise of friendship; playing the mild sycophant to maintain Othello’s trust and the reluctant moralist to plant seeds of doubt in him) and a crocodile’s remorselessness at others (as at the end, when he observes the lethal effects of his handiwork with a smug grin), but overall there’s a kind of gray-toned quality to this portrayal. Psychologically, there’s a good argument for minimizing the difference in Iago’s affect, as Hoffman does here: He feels so justified in his actions that he need not put on much of an act to fool others, nor emphasize his villainy when confessing his schemes to the audience. Dramatically, though, it could use a bit more juice, lest Iago come to seem more disgruntled bureaucrat than grand villain.

Goaded by Iago, soldierly tempers flare. From left: Jared Miller, Timothy Sekk, Chris Harder. Photo: Patrick Weishempel

Goaded by Iago, soldierly tempers flare. From left: Jared Miller, Timothy Sekk, Chris Harder. Photo: Patrick Weishempel

The other performances are a mixed bag. Daver Morrison shows us Othello’s descent in a steadily slumping gait and rising twitchiness, but speaks as though his throat is perpetually clenched. Nikki Coble’s Desdemona is strong in her befuddlement at Othello’s anger and in her pleas for mercy, but in earlier scenes is such a simple sunny innocent that her presence barely registers. Roderigo is a lovestruck sap and a born dupe, but Leif Norby makes him likably so. And there are very good smaller turns by Bill Christ as Desdemona’s angry father, Brabantio, Damon Kupper as a Venetian senator, and Del Lewis as the Duke.

But the finest performance is delivered by recent Portland transplant Dana Green as Iago’s ill-fated wife, Emilia, who comes across as more colorful and credibly multi-dimensional than any other character. She’s funny, cynical, slightly coarse; she’s no saint, but she knows right from wrong and is not entirely shocked yet still genuinely aghast when she recognizes the extent of her husband’s estrangement from such notions. Just weeks ago, Green co-starred with Amy Newman in the taut and powerful drama Gidion’s Knot for Third Rail Rep, yet her look, voice and affect all are so different here that I didn’t recognize her until looking through the playbill much later.

There’s a good chance the rest of the production might catch up with Green. This is a big show, with big emotions, and could well be the kind that will open up over the course of the run, growing more assured and vigorous, looser and more lifelike. Between Fyfe’s set, Susan E. Mickey’s sumptuous costumes, Peter Maradudin’s lighting, and fight scenes sharply choreographed by Kendall Wells, it’s already quite a fine thing to look at. Perhaps, unlike Iago’s schemes, it will all take a turn for the best.

From left: Nikki Coble as Desdemona, Morrison, Jim Vadala and Ricardy Charles Fabre as soldiers, Dana Green as Emilia. Photo: Patrick Weishampel

From left: Nikki Coble as Desdemona, Morrison, Jim Vadala and Ricardy Charles Fabre as soldiers, Dana Green as Emilia. Photo: Patrick Weishampel

One Response.

  1. Janet Bassett says:

    I thought Timothy Sekk gave so much personality to Cassio, who I think could easily have been a cardboard cutout of a character–his performance more than deserving of mention here.

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