The story of a black man tricked into strangling his white wife because she's careless with her hanky, Othello isn't bring-the-kids-and-pack-a-basket fare, but I applaud director Sidonie Garrett and the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival for daring it. The sex and murder probably upset nobody these days, but the play's brute treatment of race — particularly the villain Iago's irrational hatred of the fallible Othello — can still make us uneasy.
Othello's strong opening and suitably horrific climax should appeal to grown-ups who like some poetry with their potboilers. The production's chief advantage is Damon Gupton's commanding performance in the title role. He pitches woo like the Cy Young of love, lets the devil stir in him when provoked, but is most memorable in his quietest moments. A smooth surface of masculine ease sometimes disguises Othello's uncertainty about his place in the white world that he has married into. Gupton makes him seem less of a sap than he does in some productions, in which the white folks around Othello consider him at best an exotic novelty and at worst some threat to homeland security. Of course he's going to be suspicious.
Gupton is powerful, but the middle of the show sags like a fat kid's pushups. The audience suffers through weak pacing, some indifferent staging and at least one grating performance: John Wilson (playing Casio) speaks like Shakespeare is a foreign language that he's sounding out from a guidebook. A celebration sequence drags, with no mirth among the cast.
Clumsy entrances aside, Gene Friedman's lovely set features two bronzed Venetian towers that, after the first act, unfold into the wider expanse of a Cyprus evocative of sun and minarets. Other technical aspects excel, especially the autumnal finery that costume designer Mary Traylor has worked up for the royals.
Cassandra Schwanke makes moving sense of Desdemona's passive suffering, and Jan Rogge brightens Emilia's every scene. Bruce Roach, with his air of mummery and vaudeville, of fast talk and flimflam, is an inspired choice for Iago — but one that needs more careful managing. At first, he's captivating: a villain with comic grace who delights in his own treachery. In the weaker scenes, Roach trades menace for clowning. He squeaks out the words, punctuating every suggestive line with a pelvic thrust, and he isn't above pratfalls. Simply put, this character of pure hate is at times reduced to a mere little stinker, someone more likely to pop Othello in the kisser with a pie than engineer a bloodbath.
Scenes between the leads work best. The gravity of Gupton's Othello tugs this lightfooted Iago — and this heavy-handed play — not just to Earth but also into our world. When Iago calms down, it's hard not to imagine that this scheming weasel is still with us today, starting up 527s, probably penning e-mails about Michelle Obama calling some cracker "whitey."