From the opening moments of the Folger Theatre's production of "Othello," when jazz sounds on the heels of portentous movie music and then lingers like a backstage radio left on, it is clear that a curious -- and disastrous -- esthetic is at work here. Never have so many styles of dress and design been thrown together for a single play, a morass of visual gibberish that overwhelms a production misguided from beginning to end.
Costume designer Ann Hould-Ward -- she gave us that odd lingerie on "King Lear" last season -- has knocked herself out to produce an attic's worth of costumes that demonstrate only creativity run amok. Roderigo comes out in punk gear, Othello wears a military uniform with a sparkly scarf and a white turban that looks like a reject from "La Cage aux Folles." Desdemona appears in a Victorian traveling coat made of bold geometric design. Emilia is a suburban matron who once went to Berkeley, and Iago turns up in a camouflage rig that makes him look like a duck hunter emerging from a paint factory explosion.
Bianca, in frayed burlap, bare feet and ankle bracelet, looks like Sheena of the Jungle, and the mess sergeant wears spoons and whisks on his belt (how clever!). Throw in a little French Foreign Legion, a little 1920s elegance, a little Gentlemen's Quarterly (Roderigo returns in Borsalino hat, narrow tie and pleated pants), a little African tribal robe -- and the eyes begin to blur and the mind begs for relief.
Set designer Russell Metheny, normally so astute and spare, got the goulash fever as well. An Art Deco black lacquer portal opens to reveal a North African quasi-Mediterranean villa, augmented in later scenes with a backdrop reminiscent of a Greek vase and, still later, a hanging of primitive art. As Hould-Ward brings on the pith helmets and the tropical patio wear, Metheny presents a large creation that could be either a futuristic icebox or an Art Deco armoire, but turns out to be a screen to shield the setting up of the final scene's bed.
Surely there must be some concept at work here, but all that is apparent is a case of ragbag intellectualization at the expense of theatrical truth and sense. Director Mikel Lambert, normally a member of the acting company, who has directed four shows at the Folger, has failed to make her concept coherent. "Othello," in her view, is about interracial dating, about how fixations on color can limit or destroy human connections.
But "Othello" is also about the potent poison of jealousy, and about treachery and ambition. The grandeur of the play's emotions and scope seems simply out of range for the two main actors, Elmore James as Othello and John-Neville Andrews as Iago.
Neville-Andrews, the Folger's artistic producer, is a particular disappointment. A critic once described an actor as having phoned in his performance; in Neville-Andrews' case, it's not even a local call. His lassitude is so consistent that it must be intentional. His Iago is a stodgy provincial shopkeeper, whose evil is as petty as a small-town pimp's, rather than the venomous complex of envy, ambition and hatred the lines speak of so eloquently. One can only assume that Neville-Andrews, who has proven himself a creditable performer in the past, fell victim to the notion that he could handle two big jobs at the same time.
James at least tries, and he is quite convincing when Othello is tender and loving. But the awesome terror of his rage, his horror at realizing what he has done, are simply not there. Sherry Skinker is rather a preppie blond for Desdemona, but she has dignity and grace and a nicely spoken sincerity. Annette Helde, as Emilia, does a good imitation of one of the stage pillars for most of the evening but summons forth a fine blaze of passion for the final scene. Edward Gero and Michael Tolaydo both provide some welcome professionalism, with Gero, especially, a genuinely tormented Cassio.
But for the most part, the company has contracted Neville-Andrews' torpor, making a 3 1/2-hour evening even longer. May the noble Moor rest in peace.
Othello, by William Shakespeare; directed by Mikel Lambert, set by Russell Metheny, costumes by Ann Hould-Ward, lights by Stuart Duke, dramaturg Genie Barton. With Elmore James, Sherry Skinker, Emery Battis, Edward Gero, John Neville-Andrews, Jim Beard, Annette Helde, Richard Hart, Michael Kramer, Michael Tolaydo, Mary Kay Wulf, Floyd King, Orlagh Cassidy, Andrew Clemence, Kryztov Lindquist, Marty Lodge, Mark Mendez and Grady Smith. At the Folger through Nov. 24.