Photo by Owen Carey

THERE IS ONE REASON to see Artist Rep's current production of Othello, and that reason is named Todd Van Voris. Van Voris is a heavyset blond with a made-for-radio baritone and a dangerously disarming baby face—it's no stretch to describe him as one of the best actors in Portland. The decision to cast Van Voris as Iago, and the performance that Van Voris delivers, are the only elements of this otherwise unimpressive production that could be legitimately described as "inspired." Van Voris plays Iago like you've never seen him before—a canny good ol' boy whose bluff exterior masks a calculating, ruthless self-interest.

It's unfortunate that Othello (Victor Morris) is hardly a worthy match for Iago's chess-master machinations. This Othello is a pussycat, a pushover with a sweet smile, and it's impossible to imagine him as a general who rose through the ranks despite his race. Morris acts with his voice and with his face, but the rest of his body is curiously inert—when he does angry, it's with an unintentionally cartoonish grimace and bellow, further reinforcing this Othello's resemblance to Ferdinand the Bull. Amaya Villazan handles Desdemona's admittedly limited emotional range—from "hurt bewilderment" to "terrified bewilderment"—deftly, but her death scene is tarnished by the utter improbability of an Othello this mild-mannered suddenly deciding to strangle someone with a bedsheet.

Now, I was betting that the next Shakespeare adaptation produced in town would be set in space (Trek in the Park did so well!), but here director Jon Kretzu's given Othello a post-World War II/film noir setting. There's really no reason for this, of course; changing the setting is just what you do when you do Shakespeare. In this case, the noir stylings call for a Spartan, shadowy set—the stage is simply a platform surrounded by chairs where the actors sit when it's not their scene. A ceiling fan spins lazily over the unadorned stage, casting noir-cliché shadows that increase in speed as the tension ratchets up. Or at least, we are meant to understand that tension is ratcheting up, because the fan is spinning faster—it's that sort of a show. It's also just over three hours long, an overstay for even an outstanding production, which this emphatically is not. Iago, though...!