It's never fun to criticize free Shakespeare. Organizations like the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival, which is currently staging Othello in Kansas City's lovely S0uthmoreland Park, bring extraordinary works of art to the masses, and they do it for free. (Though their employees can rival any panhandler when it comes to begging for cash) It feels rather crass and ungrateful to castigate the HOASF for a sub-par performance. So believe me when I say that I take no pleasure in labeling the festival's presentation of Othello as, at best, workmanlike and mundane.
The heart of any Othello production is the performance of the two leads, Iago and the eponymous moor. If those two actors light up the stage, it can overwhelm a lot of mistakes. And it is here that the festival staging falls short.
Bruce Roach plays Iago, and his performance would be wonderful if he were cast as Puck from A Midsummer Night's Dream. Roach is more mischievous than malevolent as Othello's scorned aide, and as often as he expresses his hatred for the moor, he never really sells it. As expressed by Roach, the entire scheme launched by Iago to destroy Othello comes off like an elaborate fraternity prank. Roach doesn't smirk, he smiles. He doesn't snicker, he guffaws. In short, he comes off as a sane, well-adjusted, good-humored soldier, a kind of 16th century, Venetian GI Joe. Iago's cruel genius, his all-consuming hatred, do not factor into Roach's performance.
And then there's Othello himself, played by Kansas City local Damon Gupton. Gupton is a conductor with the Kansas City Symphony and a Julliard trained actor, which makes him about 1,000 times more accomplished than I could ever hope to be. But his portrayal of Othello is almost distractingly schizophrenic.
For the first half of the play, Gupton brings precious little energy or verve to the performance. He expresses his love for Desdemona (played by Cassandra Schwanke; more on her in a moment) with the cold, unfeeling voice of a 1950's father disciplining his son. Gupton shows no passion in those early scenes. That might have worked as a style choice; Othello as the cautious outsider, overly protective of his emotions in an effort to conceal his vulnerabilities from a society that treats him more as a servant than a native son.
But as soon as Othello is led to believe Desdemona has been unfaithful, Gupton becomes a twitchy, roaring force of nature. He chews scenery and generally adopts as his acting philosophy the idea that louder equals better. Even his final, heinous act is not portrayed as a moment of intimate cruelty, but instead a homicidal release of pent-up rage. The audience is taken aback by Gupton's ferocity, but not truly shocked at the horror of his actions.
However, the play is far from a total loss. Schwanke does an outstanding job in portraying Desdemona as both dutiful and justifiably outraged, but she never falls into put-upon angst. She also flashes a lovely singing voice in the final scenes. She is, in short, the highlight of the play.
The technical aspects of the production are handled well. The actors wear inconspicuous microphones, and their voices are successfully enhanced (even to the far distant area where I was seated) without coming off as booming or overly loud. Costumes and sets are both well-done.
Aside from Schwanke, there's nothing outstanding about the festival's production. But it's free Shakespeare, and a night at the park is great fun, if only for the people watching. Southmoreland Park during one of these performances features more tattooed women than Sturgis during its annual Motorcycle Rally.
So by all means, come out to Southmoreland Park. Enjoy the night and enjoy the complimentary jolt of culture. But don't expect to see brilliance on the stage.