In approaching the drama entry in this year's annual two-play outdoor Kingsmen Shakespeare Festival, artistic director Michael J. Arndt resists the resetting bug and keeps his "Othello" grounded in the 1600 Cyprus and Venice of Shakespeare's text. Compared with the Deep South plantation locale of the preceding "Midsummer Night's Dream," the only idiosyncratic flourish here is an opening Arabian Nights-style dance sequence performed by a sensuous, gyrating chorus that looks like it's on loan from a Madonna tour.
Having gotten our attention, the play settles into a solid, traditional staging that covers all the bases but rarely electrifies -- disappointing when the tragedy of Othello touches on such incendiary themes.
The characters and their society are steeped in such blatant racism that similar attitudes have on occasion been attributed to the author. It's hard to square this charge with the eloquent speech and lofty sensibilities Shakespeare invests in his Moorish general and war hero who rose to prominence in Venetian society.
Thomas Silcott brings these qualities in abundance to his dignified portrayal -- Othello the "barbarous" Moor is more refined than his Christian contemporaries, as we see early on in his disgust at the brawling of his ill-mannered troops and the tenderness with which he treats his plucky, strong-willed wife, Desdemona (Jane Longenecker).
Arndt's staging doesn't shrink from the outrage and prejudice that greets their interracial marriage; less apparent is the sexual energy that drives their union. Nevertheless, Silcott's reading of Othello is, if anything, too polite. When Marc Silver's Iago begins planting his false insinuations about Desdemona's infidelity, Othello is consumed more by self-pity than potent rage. It takes a long time for him to smolder, and even then he's always depicted as the victim of Iago's manipulation.
That's only partly true. Iago certainly pushes him to the threshold, but Othello's violent need for retribution arises out of the savagery in his own soul -- as it would in any soul pushed to the limits of humiliation -- and he needs to own that dark truth more honestly and nakedly than we see here.
As Iago, Silver cuts a strikingly incongruous figure. Recently seen cavorting in drag as one of the clowning peasants "Dream," Silver hasn't completely shaken off his comic persona and inflections.
The performer who wears the real pants in this production is Anne Lockhart, an underused festival veteran, who brings so much strength and passion to Iago's wife, Emilia, that her tragedy becomes as affecting as Othello's.
Where: Kingsmen Park at Cal Lutheran University, 60 W. Olsen Road, Thousand Oaks
When: 8 p.m. Fridays through Sundays
Ends: Aug. 6
Price: $10 general lawn admission; $50 to $65 lawn box seating
Contact: (805) 493-3455
Running time: 3 hours, 10 minutes