Poor acting abounds in lightweight take on ‘Othello’

I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a production of "Othello" that seemed to have so little at stake.

Shakespeare’s tragedy is one of his most single-minded tales, and, I’d argue, one of his most powerful. It’s painful to watch the title character fall. Othello’s an outsider, a simple-minded Moor, out of place in the world of state society. Yet, he’s managed to achieve top-notch status in the Venetian army, and has wooed and won the white daughter of a senator. He’s done in, though, by words and misplaced trust.

The play’s journey takes Othello from the pinnacle of success to his realization — just before his suicide — that he loved "not wisely but too well." It’s doubtful that anyone who’s ever been guilty of serious bouts of jealousy — "the green-eyed monster" — can be unmoved by this poor guy’s plight.

But director J.R. Sullivan’s production is so lightweight that he makes the script feel more chatty than gut-wrenching.

Jonathan Earl Peck is tall and lean, but lacks the towering presence and vocal athleticism for the title role. Othello is one of those creatures, such as King Lear, whose anger should be capable of rocking the heavens. Peck is chummy, articulate, cerebral — all the wrong qualities for a meat-and-potatoes man awkward in highbrow company.

His foe Iago — one of the great villains in dramatic literature — is reduced by actor James Newcomb to a sniveling adolescent. He reminded me of a grown-up Eddie Haskell from TV’s "Leave It to Beaver."

We get plenty of broad laughs, but what we don’t get is the sense that something serious is eating at this man. Iago doesn’t necessarily need to be a sinister omen of evil, but he certainly needs to be more than a naughty imp straight out of "Finian’s Rainbow."

Poor acting abounds, from a bland Desdemona (Lindsey Wochley) to a lieutenant Cassio (Justin Matthew Gordon) who conducts himself as if he’s never seen a battlefield, let alone made a career on one.

Corliss Preston, though, is a breath of fresh air as Emilia, Iago’s tormented wife. She’s the only performer who creates a person with genuine needs and a strong desire to achieve them.

Technical values are first-rate. The visual opulence of the outdoor stage gains in beauty as nightfall sets in. And Sullivan directs with an eye on keeping the action understandable. You can throw away the Cliffs Notes.

But this is a character-centered story, and the characters here don’t exist.

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