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Stage : Groves Miscast ‘Othello’ Lacks Dramatic Thunder

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The martial atmosphere of “Othello,” underscored by the post-Napoleonic setting of David Herman’s new production, reminds us very well that Shakespeare’s tragedy is a forceful tale of bruising, masculine strength fed by the demonic vigor of that “green-eyed monster, jealousy.”

The stage fills with a garrison of soldiers turned out in full regalia: powder-blue jackets trimmed with gold braid and epaulets, black boots and flashing swords, white form-fitting pants. The percussive music swells. The sky above Cyprus thunders with a storm at sea. All the handsome trimmings are in place.

And yet, this “Othello,” which opened Saturday at the Grove Shakespeare Festival, fails to deliver the two essential ingredients without which all the effects mean little: a corrupt, dissembling Iago motivated by unfathomable depths of malevolent revenge and a noble, shattered Othello whose doubts about his wife’s faithfulness move him to murder and suicide.

Instead we get Gary Armagnac’s puppy-dog Iago, who wags his tail when he should be hunting prey, who grins like a dolt to ward off suspicion, who minces around the stage like an ungainly Miss Muffin, perhaps to avoid being seen as slinking. Where is “honest” Iago’s cunning? His sly potency? Not here.

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And what can we make of an Othello whose grandeur seems an afterthought? Not much. This one, crushed by the mere suggestion of his wife’s presumed deceptions, throws a tantrum and rants. He aches with a fury that is all surface, and it is hard to believe from Michael Morgan’s portrayal that we are witnessing the raw, headlong downfall of a mighty general outflanked by bedroom gossip.

Ironically, the two strongest performances in what is clearly a male-dominated play come from women: Susan Doupe as the unjustly accused Desdemona and Kay Berlet as Iago’s wife, Emilia. In their only major scene together, but also whenever they’re on stage, they convey the truth of felt experience. Their characters seem credible and real.

As any director will tell you, casting is 90% of a production’s success. In this one, however, Herman has to shoulder more than the usual share of the blame for its failure. Armagnac and Morgan may consistently misread the nature of their roles. But Herman apparently never gave them any focus.

At the Festival Amphitheatre, 12852 Main St., Garden Grove, Thursdays to Sundays at 8:30 p.m., through Sept. 22; $16 to $23. Information: (714) 636-7213.


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