FULLERTON — The gremlin known as Frustration runs through the Vanguard Theatre Ensemble's production of Shakespeare's "Othello," but in all practicality, there's very little to be done about it. "Othello" itself is frustration on a grand scale, a booming, bloody symphony of miscalculations and missed opportunities.
On a lesser scale, director Terry Gunkel's staging also sometimes misses. Jason Grubbe's Iago occasionally seems like a world-weary professional student at Oxford making mischief. Wendy Abas' Desdemona from time to time lapses from high tragedy into low soap opera.
Steven Matt's Othello every now and then simply can't be heard over the Vanguard's all-important whirring electric fans. Blame that other gremlin (at least during matinee performances), the late summer heat.
But within the clear limits this company has with Shakespeare's very special brand of Jacobean tragedy--this was his first of the kind, and perhaps his most hopeless--there's also some clearheaded thinking going on behind this "Othello." It's obvious from Gunkel's uncommonly detailed program notes (i.e., Othello "is a soldier in a commercial state, not a military one") to the dogged focus on Iago as the play's central character.
Iago? That sniveling malcontent? That mere servant of Othello, a functionary in the Byzantine city-state of Venice? Yes, yes, and what seems to interest Gunkel in Iago is what interested Shakespeare: He is pure motiveless evil, a bad guy beyond psychologizing, perhaps even the human form of the plague spreading across Shakespeare's England in the early 1600s.
We all know about plagues today, but Iago is worse, since he uses the good nature of others to gain his evil ways. This is perhaps Grubbe's best dimension, imploring and giving seemingly friendly advice to everyone from Othello to fall guy Roderigo (Todd W. Crabtree, with real callowness) to second-in-command Cassio (the opaque Ken Perkins), while keeping a look over his shoulder. Someone may be catching on.
Of course, the frustration that is "Othello" is that nobody catches on until it's too late, until Iago has Othello convinced that Desdemona has slept with Cassio, until all are trapped in an inescapable web. He's a plotter for the hell of it, and Grubbe's Iago seems like a writer--even a playwright.
His asides to us are like a scrivener's mental notes, amazed and tickled at how he can manipulate the characters. The Duke of Venice (Jason Heil) could only dream of such power.
Next to this, Othello appears a little thin. Matt, though, invests him with a military authority and a well-spoken delivery that's in another class from his colleagues.
He also suggests that this military sense is the man's undoing, sure in the domestic battle, trusting of his back-stabbing lieutenant and unswayed once he makes a decision. It's a ramrod straight approach, which could get boring but is usually interesting in Matt's hands.
This Iago-ized "Othello" tends to make Desdemona less tragic and more of a pawn, but there's a good case to be made that this is a play more concerned with pawns than tragedy.
Abas' Venetian lady is very much of the court, and she comes on with a swimming grace. She is far less sure in her collapse, especially in a drawn-out passage with lady-in-waiting Emilia (Brenda Parks, who tends to play her with an odd, Eve Arden chumminess).
There also isn't the horror in Abas' eyes as she sits on her bed, realizing that her husband is about to kill her. When he does, it's with a fitting, Jacobean fierceness that's also faintly sexy. Good, dangerous stuff.
Some of Gunkel's directing ideas aren't exactly dangerous, but they're meant to bring us closer to the action--sometimes, too close.
If the opening scenes outside the theater are supposed to pull us in, they only make us realize that Grubbe sometimes slurs through a line and make us wonder why these guys are running around in a business park (where the Vanguard is located). The "up close" action then stops cold, as Vanguard staff help us to our seats. This doesn't feel like Venice.
It does feel too long, though, at three hours plus. Things settle in once we're seated to look at Gunkel's arena staging and an uncredited set design of white space with pedestals.
Elizabeth Swenson's costumes are period-free with interesting touches (Othello's prophetic uniform with Italian national colors) and silly ones (Barry Schaeffer's Brabantio wears silk PJs with Birkenstocks). Steven R. Ohab Jr.'s lights play with color, focus, flashlights, fast switching. Like everything else here, it looks like he read the play.
* "Othello," Vanguard Theatre Ensemble, 699A S. State College Blvd., Fullerton. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 5 p.m. $14. (714) 526-8007. Running time: 3 hours, 20 minutes.
Steven Matt: Othello
Jason Grubbe: Iago
Wendy Abas: Desdemona
Ken Perkins: Cassio
Brenda Parks: Emilia
Todd W. Crabtree: Roderigo
Barry Schaeffer: Brabantio
Jason Heil: Duke
Jill Cary Martin: Bianca
Paul Meitzler: Lodovico
Craig Morganti: Gratiano
An Vanguard Theatre Ensemble production of William Shakespeare's play. Directed by Terry Gunkel. Costumes: Elizabeth Swenson. Lights: Steven R. Ohab.