It sounded like a good idea. The Black Rep's staging of Othello, the press release promised, was "to have Creole flair." Shakespeare's tragedy is fraught with references to mystery and magic, to spells and witchcraft. Why not shift the locale to voodoo New Orleans, circa 1898? But it turns out this rethought version of the furious tale of jealousy run amok wasn't rethought enough. There's precious little Creole and no flair at all, so what might have been an intriguing concept never rises above the level of a shapeless notion.
Of course, theatergoers must be prepared to accept the "willing suspension of disbelief" at all plays. But audiences should not be treated with casual disdain, which is what happens here. True, a perfunctory line in the playbill states that "the setting of Venice will be represented by New Orleans and the setting of Cyprus will be represented by Cuba." But who reads playbills? It is the obligation of any revisionist production to steer viewers through the changes.
When, for instance, Othello stops a brawl with the renowned exhortation, "Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them," one might expect to see a sword. As staged here, Othello is responding to a soldier with a rifle. The command, instead of being majestic, becomes incongruous. The production doesn't hesitate to change Iago's line, "I have looked upon the world for four times seven years," to "six times seven years" in order to adjust to the actor's age. So why not include alterations that clarify the revised story?
Othello is arguably the most passionate of all Shakespeare's plays. Yet this version is woefully lacking in heat, physical or sensual. Desdemona (Rory Lipede) and Emilia (Monica Parks) are garbed up to their necks in outfits that seem more Victorian than Creole. (What bride would go to bed — in hot, humid Cuba, no less — clad in the prudish nightgown that Lipede is forced to wear?) The perfunctory pecks that Desdemona substitutes for ardent kisses would imply that she's been married to Othello for 40 years rather than a newlywed. The evening is far too prim and proper, suggesting that the reach of this raw tragedy is beyond the grasp of director Chris Anthony.
As always happens when producers and directors do a half-baked job of conceptualizing, the actors are hung out to dry. This cast has to go to Olympian lengths to salvage the evening. Robert A. Mitchell brings welcome clarity to the victimized Cassio, and the ever-solid A.C. Smith bestows a quality that is sorely missing here — common sense — upon his brief portrayal of the Duke. (Smith actually looks at other actors when they speak!) I concede that I do not understand the thinking behind Darryl Alan Reed's "honest Iago." Because Iago is evil incarnate, an actor doesn't have to reach for a character: To say the lines is to be evil. Reed says the lines, but he does not relish malevolence; he conveys no urgency to destroy. There is no why behind his villainy.
The actor who plays Othello must work through intriguing contradictions, for Othello must be superior to passion as well as passion's slave. In Act One Andre Sills' Moor is constrained by a production that slights character development. But then just prior to the intermission, when he lets loose with the turbulent speech that begins, "Farewell the tranquil mind; farewell content!" Sills shakes out of his lethargy and goes to work. In Act Two he puts all the conceptual nonsense behind him and simply plays the text. Finally the words take hold.
By evening's end we don't care where Othello is set. Once again — though on this outing, almost in spite of itself — the agony of a man who loved not wisely, but too well, becomes absorbing theater.