Gavin Hoffman

Not so elementary, my dear Watson

CoHo's triple play about a trio of Watsons and the difficulties of communication and artificial intelligence rings some unusual bells

Let’s get one thing out of the way up front: The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence, at CoHo Theatre, is not about Sherlock Holmes. His sidekick, Dr. Watson, makes an appearance, but Mr. Holmes himself is absent. And the play, which is sometimes confusing but also swiftly entertaining, is somewhat of a mystery: Will our protagonists get what they need? Will they know they need it?

So, then, you talk into this part? Eric Martin Reid and Sarah Ellis Smith contemplate Bell’s talking machine. Photo: Owen Carey

Directed by CoHo Artistic Director Philip Cuomo, Madeleine George’s Watson Intelligence comprises three stories, each set in a different time period and with a different set of characters, who nevertheless are named the same and played by the same three actors in each era. The stories are connected loosely to each other, at best, even when characters from one period wind up in another. The thread that connects them is the name “Watson” – the man on the other end of the phone when Alexander Graham Bell makes his first phone call; Holmes’s sidekick; and the name of the artificial-intelligence computer that won Jeopardy in 2011.

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Tear down (or build) that wall

Robert Schenkkan's political provocation "Building the Wall" at Triangle pokes into the Trump Effect and a possible American future

Building the Wall, Robert Schenkkan’s quick-out-of-the-gate stage response to the American political and cultural shift of the past year, is a well-timed last-minute addition to the current season at Triangle Productions. A protest play that questions whose America this will be in the wake of the Trumpian political revolution, it runs for a brief engagement through April 29 at The Sanctuary.

On the surface Building the Wall, which is directed at Triangle by company leader Donald Hornis a conversation between two people who seem like polar opposites. One man sits in an orange prison jumpsuit. Opposite him is a history professor, who is also a black woman. The prisoner dropped out of school, got a GED and entered the military. The professor is a liberal. The prisoner is a modern-day Republican.

Gavin Hoffman and Andrea Vernae: over the wall. David Kinder/Kinderpics

But the conversation isn’t just between this unlikely pair. It’s the conversations we’ve been having at the dinner table with family, on the bus with strangers, in our social media feeds, in an explosive era of journalism, overflowing town halls, and packed activist meetings. The conversation between Rick and Gloria is also with us.

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Sub-standard hero at the food court

Artists Rep's fast-food comedy "American Hero" is deftly produced and performed, but the script sandwich holds more than the mayo

Everybody’s gotta eat. And (with the possible exception of advanced Buddhist practitioners) everyone hungers for something. Those may or may not be related.

Sometimes that first truth leads you to settle for what’s at hand, the convenient and familiar — for instance, a fast-food sandwich. You probably can count on the thing to conform to some basic standards, to have a calculatedly appealing combination of salt and fat and such, to fill your tummy for awhile. But is it really satisfying?

Val Landrum, Emily Eisele and Gavin Hoffman, taking it to the man. Photo: Owen Carey

Val Landrum, Emily Eisele and Gavin Hoffman, taking it to the man. Photo: Owen Carey

For those who consume theater as sustenance, that sub sandwich has a surprising counterpart in American Hero, the latest production on the boards at the venerable Artists Repertory Theatre. Bess Wohl’s one-act comedy serves up enough basic entertainment value to get you through a brief evening — a handful of skillful performances and a lot of easy laughs tucked into a readily recognizable and digestible form.  But if you’re feeling the need of some nourishing human insight, emotional resonance, trenchant social thinking or refined aesthetic pleasure, you might find yourself uttering some theatergoers version of that old TV-ad lament, “Wow. I could’ve had a V-8!”

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Drammys: a night for Misbehavin’

Portland Center Stage's Fats Waller musical sweeps up six trophies at Portland's annual theater awards; "Orlando" wins big; actor Gavin Hoffman hits a double

Ain’t Misbehavin’, Portland Center Stage’s bold large-scale rethinking of the intimate Fats Waller musical revue, swept up much of the hardware Monday night at the Drammy Awards, sharing the spotlight with Orlando, Profile Theatre’s brash adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s time-traveling, gender-bending adventure novel.

Ain’t Misbehavin’ dominated the evening with six awards, including best production of a musical, director of a musical (Chris Coleman), music direction (Rick Lewis), ensemble performance in a musical, scenic design (Tony Cisek), and costumes (Alison Heryer, who was also nominated for Orlando).

Portland Center Stage's "Ain't Misbehavin'": best ensemble in the best musical on the dest-designed stage. (Photo by Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv)

Portland Center Stage’s “Ain’t Misbehavin'”: best ensemble in the best musical on the best-designed stage. (Photo by Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv)

Orlando, which was part of Profile’s season of plays by Sarah Ruhl, won the coveted award for best production of a play, plus two other major categories: best actress in a play (Beth Thompson, who was also nominated for best supporting actress in Profile’s In the Next Room, or the vibrator play) and director of a play (Matthew B. Zrebski).

The Drammy Awards ceremony, Portland’s annual celebration of top achievements in theater, jammed the downtown Newmark Theatre of Portland’5 Centers for the Arts with a mixed crowd of theater fans and stage professionals, from actors and directors to designers and stagehands. In all, 117 productions were considered for awards by the 16-member Drammy committee. Late-season shows that were still running in June, such as Portland Playhouse’s hit Peter and the Starcatchers, Corrib’s Our New Girl, Triangle’s American Idiot, defunkt’s The Udmurts, and Artists Rep’s Grand Concourse and The Skin of Our Teeth, will be considered for 2016-17 awards.

Actor and director Beth Harper, founder and artistic director of the professional-training Portland Actors Conservatory, won this year’s lifetime achievement award, and it was a popular choice: when she walked onstage she was greeted with a standing ovation by the crowd, several of whom had graduated from the Actors Conservatory, and several more of whom have worked with her in shows. “For a girl from Pea Ridge, Tennessee, Miss Beth, you have done all right,” actor and director Brenda Hubbard said in introducing her. Harper thanked her own mentor, the legendary late Portland teacher and director Jack Featheringill, and commented, “It really does feel quite lovely to be appreciated.”

Gavin Hoffman scored a rare double victory in the acting categories, taking home the best actor Drammy for his performance as a desperate actor juggling life and art in The Understudy at Artists Repertory Theatre, and the supporting actor award for his performance in Great Expectations at Portland Center Stage. David Bodin shared the supporting-actor award for his Malvolio in Portland Shakespeare Project’s Twelfth Night. “I’m not greedy, really I’m not,” Hoffman said disarmingly in the second of his two acceptance speeches.

Best actress Beth Thompson in best play production "Orlando" at Profile Theatre. Photo: David Kinder

Best actress Beth Thompson in best play production “Orlando” at Profile Theatre. Photo: David Kinder

Other major acting awards went to Brian Demar Jones for best actor in a musical (Under the Influence, Fuse Theatre Ensemble), Malia Tippets for actress in a musical (Heathers: The Musical, Triangle Productions and Staged!), Jamie Rea for supporting actress in a play (A Doll’s House, Shaking the Tree), Cassie Q. Kohl for supporting actress in a musical (H.M.S. Pinafore, Mock’s Crest Productions), James Sharinghousen for supporting actor in a musical (Oklahoma!, Broadway Rose), and Kai Tomizawa for young performer (Junie B. Jones: The Musical, Oregon Children’s Theatre).

Among several special awards, the Portland Civic Theatre Guild gave out $17,000 for several projects, including $2,000 to the Rex Putnam High School theater department for children’s theater programs, $4,000 to CoHo Theatre for an exterior sign, $5,000 to John Ellingson to study puppet design in England, and $6,000 to Shaking the Tree for lighting and sound equipment. And the group Age and Equity for the Arts awarded $30,000 – $10,000 to Profile Theatre, $20,000 to CoHo – to support equity programs. Imago Theatre won the Artslandia Award of $5,000 in advertising and publicity.

The evening’s hosts were the seven members of The 3rd Floor comedy troupe, and what might have been a logistical disaster turned out instead to be a smooth, sometimes surprising, and often very funny addition to a show that ran a little over two and a half hours. The group’s quick wits and easy teamwork made the evening run like a machine – the sort of machine that includes spatters of blood, a cranked-up Carmina Burana soundtrack, an 8-foot-tall Sasquatch helping to announce the best-costume nominees, and at least one close-to-the-bone running gag. The troupe’s performance was refreshing and bittersweet: after 20 years onstage, it’ll call it quits after a July 9 reunion/retirement show at Artists Rep.

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The complete list of 2015-16 Drammy winners and nominees. Winners are listed in boldface at the top of each category:

 

BEST ACTOR IN A MUSICAL

Brian Demar Jones
Under the Influence
Fuse Theatre Ensemble

Max Artsis
Dogfight
Staged!

Jared Miller

Oklahoma!
Broadway Rose Theatre Company

Joel Walker
Thoroughly Modern Millie
Broadway Rose Theatre Company

BEST ACTOR IN A PLAY

Gavin Hoffman
The Understudy
Artists Repertory Theatre

Bobby Bermea
The Set-Up
Cygnet Productions

Allen Nause

Chapatti 
Corrib Theatre

Seth Rue
Blue Door
Profile Theatre

 

BEST ACTRESS IN A MUSICAL

Malia Tippets
Heathers: The Musical
triangle productions! & Staged! 

Claire Avakian
Thoroughly Modern Millie
Broadway Rose Theatre Company

Courtney Freed
Falsettos
Live On Stage

Kailey Rhodes
Chicago
Metropolitan Community Theatre Project

 

BEST ACTRESS IN A PLAY

Beth Thompson
Orlando
Profile Theatre

JoAnn Johnson
Mothers And Sons
Artists Repertory Theatre

Val Landrum
The Miracle Worker
Artists Repertory Theatre

Kayla Lian
Davita’s Harp
Jewish Theatre Collaborative

 

BEST CHOREOGRAPHY

Jessica Wallenfels
H.M.S. Pinafore
Mock’s Crest Productions

Maija Garcia
Cuba Libre
Artists Repertory Theatre

Maria Tucker
Oklahoma!
Broadway Rose Theatre Company

Kent Zimmerman
Ain’t Misbehavin’
Portland Center Stage 

 

BEST COSTUME DESIGN

Alison Heryer
Ain’t Misbehavin’
Portland Center Stage

Sarah Gahagan
In the Next Room, or the vibrator play
Profile Theatre

Alison Heryer
Orlando
Profile Theatre

Ashton Hull
Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play
Portland Playhouse

BEST DIRECTOR OF A MUSICAL

Chris Coleman
Ain’t Misbehavin’
Portland Center Stage

Diane Englert
Heathers: The Musical
triangle productions! & Staged!

Bruce A. Hostetler
H.M.S. Pinafore
Mock’s Crest Productions

Sharon Maroney
Oklahoma!
Broadway Rose Theatre Company

 

BEST DIRECTOR OF A PLAY

Matthew B. Zrebski
Orlando
Profile Theatre

Michael Mendelson
The Understudy
Artists Repertory Theatre

Louanne Moldovan
The Set-Up
Cygnet Productions

Pat Patton
Waiting For Godot
Northwest Classical Theatre Collaborative

 

BEST ENSEMBLE IN A MUSICAL

Ain’t Misbehavin’
Portland Center Stage

Cuba Libre
Artists Repertory Theatre

In the Heights
Stumptown Stages

Thoroughly Modern Millie
Broadway Rose Theatre Company

 

BEST ENSEMBLE IN A PLAY

The Set-Up
Cygnet Productions

Cock
defunkt theatre

Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play
Portland Playhouse

Orlando
Profile Theatre

 

BEST LIGHTING DESIGN

Don Crossley
The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane
Oregon Children’s Theatre

Kristeen Willis Crosser
The Understudy
Artists Repertory Theatre

Carl Faber
Orlando
Profile Theatre

Diane Ferry Williams
Ain’t Misbehavin’
Portland Center Stage

 

BEST MUSIC DIRECTION

Rick Lewis
Ain’t Misbehavin’
Portland Center Stage

Tracey Edson
H.M.S. Pinafore
Mock’s Crest Productions

Jonathan Quesenberry
Heathers: The Musical
triangle productions! & Staged!

Jeffrey Childs
Oklahoma!
Broadway Rose Theatre Company

 

BEST ORIGINAL MUSIC

Ernie Lijoi, Kevin Laursen, Lawrence Rush
Under the Influence
Fuse Theatre Ensemble

Adrian Baxter
The Set-Up
Cygnet Productions

Rory Stitt
The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane
Oregon Children’s Theatre

Matthew B. Zrebski
Chrysalis
Oregon Children’s Theatre (Young Professionals)

 

BEST ORIGINAL SCRIPT

Noah Dunham
How to Stop Dying
Action/Adventure Theatre

Ernie Lijoi
Under the Influence
Fuse Theatre Ensemble

Sacha Reich + Jamie Rea
Davita’s Harp
Jewish Theatre Collaborative

Claire Willett
Dear Galileo
Playwrights West

 

BEST PIT ENSEMBLE

Cuba Libre
Artists Repertory Theatre

Chicago
Metropolitan Community Theatre Project

Mame
Lakewood Theatre Company

Oklahoma!
Broadway Rose Theatre Company

 

BEST PRODUCTION OF A MUSICAL

Ain’t Misbehavin’
Portland Center Stage

H.M.S. Pinafore
Mock’s Crest Productions

Heathers: The Musical
triangle productions! & Staged!

Under the Influence
Fuse Theatre Ensemble

BEST PRODUCTION OF A PLAY

Orlando
Profile Theatre

Cock
defunkt theatre

The Set-Up
Cygnet Productions

The Understudy
Artists Repertory Theatre 

 

BEST SCENIC DESIGN

Tony Cisek
Ain’t Misbehavin’
Portland Center Stage

Stephen Dobay
In the Next Room, or the vibrator play
Profile Theatre

Tal Sanders
Orlando
Profile Theatre

Tim Stapleton
Waiting For Godot
Northwest Classical Theatre Collaborative

 

BEST SOUND DESIGN

Rodolfo Ortega
Blue Door
Profile Theatre

Richard E. Moore
The Drunken City
Theatre Vertigo

Seth Nehil
Time, A Fair Hustler
Hand2Mouth

Scott Thorson
Sex With Strangers
Portland Center Stage

 

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR IN A MUSICAL

James Sharinghousen
Oklahoma!
Broadway Rose Theatre Company

Troy Pennington
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Broadway Rose Theatre Company

Blake Stone
Heathers: The Musical
triangle productions! & Staged!

Joe Theissen
Thoroughly Modern Millie
Broadway Rose Theatre Company

 

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR IN A PLAY

David Bodin
Twelfth Night
Portland Shakespeare Project

and

Gavin Hoffman
Great Expectations
Portland Center Stage

Matthew Kerrigan
In the Next Room, or the vibrator play
Profile Theatre

Todd Van Voris
The New Electric Ballroom
Third Rail Repertory Theatre

 

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS IN A MUSICAL

Cassi Q. Kohl
H.M.S. Pinafore
Mock’s Crest Productions

Amanda Pred
Heathers: The Musical
triangle productions! & Staged!

Danielle Purdy
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Broadway Rose Theatre Company

Emily Sahler
Thoroughly Modern Millie
Broadway Rose Theatre Company

 

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS IN A PLAY

Jamie Rea
A Doll’s House
Shaking the Tree

Crystal Ann Muñoz
Twelfth Night
Portland Shakespeare Project

Anne Sorce
Time, A Fair Hustler
Hand2Mouth

Beth Thompson
In the Next Room, or the vibrator play
Profile Theatre

 

BEST YOUNG PERFORMER

Kai Tomizawa
Junie B. Jones: The Musical
Oregon Children’s Theatre

Annabel Cantor
Ramona Quimby
Oregon Children’s Theatre

Morgan Fay
The Wrestling Season
Oregon Children’s Theatre (Young Professionals)

Agatha Olson
The Miracle Worker
Artists Repertory Theatre

 

LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD

Beth Harper

 

SPECIAL AWARDS: 

Best Properties Design: Kaye Blankenship, In the Next Room,” or The Vibrator Play, Profile Theatre

Best Scenic Artist: Mindy Barker, The Drunken City, Theatre Vertigo

Best Solo Performance: Matthew Kerrigan, The Dissenter’s Handbook, Shaking the Tree Theater

Special achievement by a producer: Adriana Baer (Profile) and Samantha van der Merwe (Shaking the Tree), Passion Play

 

PATA SPOTLIGHT AWARDS:

The following Spotlight awards were presented by Portland Area Theatre Alliance (PATA):

  • Other: Kate E. Ortolano, sign language
  • Crew: Crew of The Skin of Our Teeth at Artists Repertory Theatre
  • Stage Manager: Karen Hill
  • Stage Manager: D Westerholm

 

PORTLAND CIVIC THEATRE GUILD AWARDS:

  • Mary Brand Award: $2,000 to Rex Putnam High School Theatre Department Children’s Theatre Program to bring theater to elementary school audiences that otherwise could not afford to attend.
  • Leslie O. Fulton Fellowship: $5,000 to John Ellingson for travel to England to study at the Beverly Puppet Festival in July, following which he will connect and interact with several prominent puppet companies in England.
  • Portland Civic Theatre $4,000 Award  to CoHo Theatre to pay for the creation and installation of an exterior sign marking the building and increasing the visibility of the theatre.
  • The Portland Civic Theatre $6,000 Award to Shaking the Tree to upgrade their lighting and sound equipment.

 

AGE AND GENDER EQUITY AWARDS:

  • $10,000 to Profile Theatre
  • $20,000 to CoHo Productions

‘The Understudy’: Driving it home

Artists Rep deftly takes the turns of Theresa Rebeck's comic vehicle about love and life backstage

Watching Gavin Hoffman’s antic, pacing, begging, whining, very funny stand-up comedy routine of an opening scene in Theresa Rebeck’s comedy The Understudy at Artists Repertory Theatre on Saturday night, I got to thinking of vehicles. Not Fords or Bentleys or Priuses, but theatrical vehicles, the sort of plays that used to get written to showcase the talents of the Gertrude Lawrences and Katherine Cornells and Lunt & Fontannes of the world.

The thing about that opening scene is, not just any Tom, Dick, or George Spelvin could pull it off. It’s a bravura turn, and a dangerous one: the fate of the entire show hangs on it. If the actor aces it, the show has the audience in the palm of its hand. If he blows it, the whole performance is down the tubes already. You won’t get the audience back.

Berkshire and Hoffman: an uncomfortable reunion. Photo: Owen Carey

Berkshire and Hoffman: an uncomfortable reunion. Photo: Owen Carey

Hoffman aces it, and for the rest of the evening, all is well. But it also makes clear that The Understudy is a brittle play, an unforgiving one, relying to an unusual degree on the skills of its performers to work. If any of the three actors aren’t up to it, the seams will start to show. At Artists Rep, all three are up to it, shifting and accelerating pretty much effortlessly under Michael Mendelson’s smooth and swiftly paced direction, and the evening bubbles along on a light sea of laughter, affection, and appreciation for the acting art.

As literary craft, though, Rebeck’s comedy seems a little slapdash. In an odd way, it’s all performance art, the old-fashioned kind, passing the ball deftly from one bravura turn to the next, without ever deepening much or getting to a particular point. Themes are begun and left undeveloped: the lack of women’s roles in the theater, the chasm between Hollywood and the stage (or “art” and “entertainment”), the relationship between irresponsibility and the arts, the nature of self-obsession and betrayal, even that good old-fashioned movie staple “why don’t those crazy kids just kiss and make up?”. Whether we’re supposed to take seriously the undiscovered masterpiece by Kafka that’s being rehearsed, or disregard it as a campy joke as the actors stretch it to ridiculous effect, doesn’t come clear. And we never do get a clue to why, six long years earlier, Harry dumped Roxanne without a word and left her stranded practically at the altar. The play flirts with meanings, and then steps back.

But looked at from another angle – as a well-crafted vehicle for three actors to show off their skills – The Understudy’s a rip-roaring success. In this production Hoffman remains the main attraction (a bit ironically, as he’s playing Harry, the understudy of the title who’s being rehearsed only in case the action-movie star who’s slumming on Broadway skedaddles back to Hollywood) but his companions – Ayanna Berkshire as Roxanne, the stage manager who naturally has a few issues with the new understudy; and Jared Q. Miller as Jake, the minor movie star who prompts Harry’s resentment and contempt – have plenty of space to show off their own chops. Rebeck has created a showcase for the actors, and sometimes that’s enough.

Berkshire confronts Hoffman: stage managers know best. Photo: Owen Carey

Berkshire confronts Hoffman: stage managers rule. Photo: Owen Carey

Berkshire – last seen at Artists Rep giving a lovely, steely-delicate performance as the seamstress Esther in Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel, also directed by Mendelson – gets to pull out pretty much all the stops on exasperation as Roxanne, who since Harry walked out on her has given up her promising career as an actor to become a stage manager, which in Roxanne’s mind means mostly cleaning up the messes that actors, stagehands, producers, and other non-grownups make. (Somehow, Roxanne’s career shift is also Harry’s fault, at least in her mind. This makes little sense, but emotionally, Berkshire makes it stick.) The stage manager’s lot is symbolic, maybe, of the position Harry put her in when he disappeared: she was the one who had to grow up and move along. And Berkshire’s shift, late in this long one-act, from harried stage manager to actor straddling the line between performance and reality is a little bit of stage magic.

Miller, meanwhile, moves slyly and charmingly from brainless movie hunk to serious stage actor to incipiently sensitive guy as Jake, whose effects-heavy action flick has just pulled in $67 million in opening-weekend box office, and who’s starring in this “prestige” Broadway show to keep in the public eye while he’s waiting for a really big Hollywood offer. Jake’s a bit of a tweener: he makes $2.2 million a movie, impressive to the perpetually bankrupt Harry but small potatoes compared to the play’s big BIG star, Bruce, who pulls in ten times that much. (We never see the coyly named Bruce, but we hear about him a lot: he’s both the jackpot and the snake in the garden, the symbol of the Hollywood corruption of the legit-stage Garden of Eden.)

Hoffman and Miller: comparisons are futile. Photo: Owen Carey

Hoffman and Miller: comparisons are futile. Photo: Owen Carey

And Miller makes the case, almost imperceptibly, for Jake’s savvy if not his native intelligence, and for Hollywood as something different from Broadway: a medium in which visual magnetism matters, and where a line like “Get in the truck!,” delivered with the proper urgency and visceral impact, is worthy of a fat paycheck.

Which brings us back to vehicles. Yes, The Understudy might be one. But Artists Rep drives it home.

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The Understudy continues through Oct. 4 at Artists Rep. Schedule and ticket information are here.

‘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