Iago moves players around like pieces on a chessboard (also symbolically employed in the first scene). He uses the weakness of Othello's lieutenant, Cassio (Ted Carter), the anger of Desdemona's spurned suitor, Roderigo (Cynde Liffick), and the generous heart of Desdemona herself to weave a plausible lie that drives Othello into fits of jealousy. These fits quickly take a tragic turn toward the homicidal.
The action hurtles along steadily enough in this 90-minute, intermission-free production, thanks mostly to an exceptional performance by Pierce, with trusty support from Liffick, who also plays Iago's wife, Emilia. However, where Hamm stumbles is in not giving Nowlin anything as inspiring to work from as he has given Pierce. With Othello's quick, devastating journey from the pinnacle of faithful devotion to the pit of jealous despair, Shakespeare is trafficking in heart-rending emotions, and we should feel those in Nowlin's performance. Instead, Nowlin's Othello falls too quickly and conclusively for Iago's ruse and his passion never bubbles over into a rage. A telling point happens at the conclusion of the play when Liffick as Emilia projects more genuine pain at the tragedy that has transpired than Nowlin does.
Pawlowski does a fine job as Desdemona, her attitude toward Othello slowly changing from devotion to bewilderment. Carter makes for a modest but steadfast Cassio, and he has several surprisingly comic moments early on. Relatively barebones technically, the production does employ some very real-looking weaponry, though Hamm thankfully doesn't draw out the play's combat scenes any longer than necessary. While there are implicit racial overtones in "Othello," thanks to the lead character's Moorish complexion, no undue attention is drawn to this fact.
There are a couple of other items that I could fault Hamm for, though: actors fiddling with a CD player on stage to provide background music can be distracting, and Shakespeare starts to feel really long without an intermission. But these items could be easily overlooked if the central tragedy was consistently compelling. This could have been a superb production with just a little more Moor. S
Richmond Shakespeare Theatre's "Othello" will be at Second Presbyterian Church, 5 North Fifth St., through April 8. Tickets are available by calling 232-4000 or at www.bardtix.org.