When it comes to Shakespeare’s tragedies, Othello requires little in the way of directorial interference. The story simply revs with melodramatic and psychological intrigue. Under the snake-like manipulations of a world-class villain, erotic love—as embodied in a glamorous military hero who, being a Moor in Venice, can’t help feeling like a stark outsider—unspools to reveal latent terrors. No wonder the pathos is a slam dunk: The perversion of Othello’s admirable yet vulnerable character sharpens the sting of the catastrophe he perpetrates on his noble wife, Desdemona, and their rare, risk-taking marriage.
Aquila Theatre Company’s production of Shakespeare’s most poignant play, which has enjoyed a sweeping national tour courtesy of the NEA, exemplifies both the best and worst of the troupe’s energetic style. The staging incorporates a few dozen audience members who flesh out the Venetian senate convened to deliberate on the imminent war against the Turks. Dressed in the clothes they show up in, these spectators sit raptly as Othello interrupts to explain how he wooed Desdemona with the unvarnished tale of his life. Later, they serve as extras in the Cyprus military compound grown decadent (think house music and lap dancing) after victory. The overall effect is bouncy rather than dramatic. “Look,” the production seems to be saying at every participatory turn, “Shakespeare isn’t so remote from our contemporary lives! The old boy can even be fun if you play along!”
This is an Othello destined to win the hearts of high school guidance counselors, though not English teachers, who should recognize that Shakespeare doesn’t need to be sugarcoated like some foul-tasting medicine. The storytelling approach to the material—an Aquila hallmark that worked for the Iliad but proved disastrous in the recent Agamemnon with Olympia Dukakis—dispenses almost entirely with subtlety. Time-tested plays don’t need horseplay or broad illustration; they need to be experienced, nuance by thrilling nuance.