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Theater Review:

"OTHELLO," The Journeymen at Holy Covenant United Methodist Church

BY LUCIA MAURO

Setting William Shakespeare’s zealous revenge tragedy, "Othello," in a church has its own layered and semi-ironic appeal. A furtive murder plot and a stage later littered with a considerable body count are given a heightened sense of viciousness when carried out in the sanctuary of Holy Covenant United Methodist Church. But, apart from the intriguing sepulchral setting and a few textured lead performances, The Journeymen’s overall production of "Othello" tends to be wooden and plodding.

This is surprising for a company associated with high-caliber, fiercely charged stagings. Director Frank Pullen, an insightful artist capable of unearthing rich psychological nuggets from classic scripts, struggles with establishing a consistent tone. And, while the dimly lit house of worship – with its stained glass windows and cleverly angled candelabras – provides a haunting environment for the Bard’s chiaroscuro masterpiece set in Venice’s golden age, it’s acoustically daunting. The actors’ lines often get swallowed up in the church’s expansive voids or drowned out in the live guitar-accompanied scenes (by Michael Rushton) with Iago and Roderigo.

Blocking is also a challenge in a space that forces the actors to stand far apart in detached presentational fashion or huddle close together at too a great a distant.

Pullen’s decision to emphasize the interracial aspects of the drama, however, powerfully illustrates the devastating results of racism still permeating society.

A string of deceptions and deadly provocations are set into motion shortly after Othello, the Moorish general leading the Venetian army, marries Venetian gentlewoman Desdemona. Her father Brabantio, a senator, opposes the marriage, as does Othello’s villainous ensign and confidante, Iago (further spurred by the Moor’s promotion of Cassio to lieutenant). Through a series of brilliantly manipulative machinations, Iago plants false rumors of Desdemona’s infidelity in Othello’s ear – crushing an impassioned and tender union through devious suspicion.

James Vincent Meredith delivers a gentle yet potent interpretation of the title warrior, who comes undone through his own trusting nature. Clearly in love with Desdemona (Amy Lewis Montgomery in a strikingly devoted but one-dimensional performance), his Othello demonstrates an aching reluctance as he moves from blissful confidence to gnawing doubt to jealous fury. Meredith’s stellar and tempered performance carries the show.

Fortunately, he is pungently paired with James Foster’s insidiously provocative Iago – an actor who reveals falseness through the subtle hesitancy of a bow or in the amiable gritting of his teeth. Despite a few line-delivery missteps, Foster plumbs the subterranean depths of his loathsome, cowardly character capable of prodding Othello’s subconscience with eviscerating skepticism that ultimately plunges Iago deeper into a pit of self-loathing.

Pullen’s sporadically effective but generally laborious direction promotes a number of un-, or under-, developed performances ranging from stalwart to stiff by the capable supporting cast. And, although Rushton’s original music and guitar playing mirror Iago’s spiked whispers, it can be intrusive – especially since Rushton also plays the clown in a dated and anachronistic punk style that runs counter to The Journeymen’s more traditional period staging.•

The Journeymen’s "Othello" runs through December 16 at Holy Covenant United Methodist Church, 925 W. Diversey. Tickets: $15-$18. Call 773-857-5395 or log onto www.journeymen.org.

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