Othello is among the most emotionally devastating of Shakespeare's tragedies and tells a dark tale of consuming emotion and radical revenge. And yet, for all its emotional complexity, the sum movement of the play is simple: It traces the transformation of Othello, a Moorish general respected by his Venetian colleagues despite his skin color, from nobility and rationality to insane jealousy.
Artists Repertory Theatre's production, directed by Jon Kretzu, mirrors this decline into madness with a second, equally perplexing, shift in character. The first act is deftly delivered as straight comedy, with Todd Van Voris playing a delightfully devious Iago, drawing near-constant laughs with his audacious hypocrisy and somehow-charming asides. Moreover, Victor Morris perfectly embodies Othello's nonchalant self-confidence, and the chemistry between the two at the end of the first half is effortlessly entertaining.
But the play must turn to tragedy, and the result of all this scheming carries less weight than the scheming itself. The cast never develops quite enough distance from the comic first half to embrace the homicidal gravity of the play's conclusion, and while Morris' sane Othello is domineering and convincing, his turn lags, and he rarely seems more than a man playing at madness. Change is hard for Van Voris as well: his Iago strongly echoes the lighthearted amorality of Falstaff, and the last-minute shift from jovial hypocrite to straight villain is untenable.
The play's film-noir theme and World War II setting fill the stage with classy period outfits and make for a few fantastic moments—as when Iago quietly cleans his gun during a prolonged conversation with Othello—but overall seem rather arbitrary. The show is worth seeing for the humor—it delivers in spades—but don't expect a soul-rending catharsis. A handful of strong supporting roles flush the play out (Alec Wilson is a fantastically befuddled Roderigo), but the production's shift in tone undermines the play's emotional violence with a disconcerting wink.
Artists Repertory Theatre, 1515 SW Morrison St., 241-1278. 7:30 pm Tuesdays-Saturdays, 2 and 7:30 pm Sundays. Closes May 13. $25-$47, $20 students.