Utah Shakespeare Festival’s Othello a riveting experience

By Rachelle Hughes
Iron County Today

What happens when Shakespeare’s Othello, a gut-wrenching story before it even takes the stage, is produced in the intimate setting of the Eileen and Allen Anes Studio Theatre with a cast of exceptional actors?

Pure tragic theatre magic.

After 57 years, the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s artistic decisions have become cleverly refined and often obviously deliberate. It seemed strange, at first, that one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies would be performed in a theatre that only seats 200 people.  Shouldn’t Othello and the tale of his descent into jealousy and murder of his wife be played out in the grandest of theatres? But that is not how USF decided to present Othello this season. Stripped of almost any props and outfitted with a very simple set, the story and its characters became engrossing.

Sitting just a few rows away from the stage felt as if we were on the stage itself and at times I still felt myself leaning forward anxious for lago to stop his manipulations, for Othello to realize his great folly, for sweet Desdemona to live. It also helps that the Festival cast some of its most adept actors at performing Shakespeare’s language in this play. Othello doesn’t need grand costumes and sets if its actors are master storytellers.  

Brian Vaughn plays a dark, menacing and charismatic Iago that can wear the face of a friend and confidante so naturally it is sickening. I have always imagined Iago as this obviously slimy, ingratiating character. I thoroughly loved Vaughn’s confident Iago, who was a man of many faces that clearly reveal why Iago could so easily fool everyone. It is with great irony, he utters “men should be what they seem,” when he, least of all, is who he appears to be.

On the other end of the good vs. evil spectrum is Betsy Mugavero’s guileless Desdemona. Full of nothing but love, spirited fun, and concern towards her new husband Othello and loyalty for his men, Desdemona is lovable. Mugavero is fast becoming one of my favorite leading ladies in Shakespeare’s plays. Her execution makes Shakespeare easy to understand and his women relatable. I also enjoyed the dramatic lighting used by lighting designer Jaymi Lee Smith  to emphasize the characters’ personalities and moods in the play. Much like Mugavero’s performance, the stage got visibly brighter whenever Desdemona took the stage. While props and scenery were uncomplicated and simple, Smith used lighting as a vital accessory in this production.

Wayne T. Carr’s Othello was commanding and intense, Jeb Burris’s Cassio, a loyal and lovable lieutenant, and Brandon Burk’s Roderigo sufficiently forlorn and naive. Even Desdemona’s father, Brabationa had his moment in the intimate theatre’s spotlight. Paul Michael Sandberg’s performance of the wronged father had me wishing he had more moments on the stage to speak Shakespeare with us.  

As the play progressed and Iago’s evil compounded and enfolded all of the characters, the tragedy’s emotion rightfully smoldered to its final climax where all the good people die at their own hands or of those they love. Othello hurts. It is supposed to.  The Festival’s cast and their performances leave the audience wondering where are own jealousies and intolerance could lead if not examined more carefully. In the beginning, I wondered at the very interesting choice of putting a big play like Othello, in such a small space. In the end, I could only think, “That was genius.”

Othello plays through October 13. Tickets can be purchased at bard.org or by calling 1-800-Playtix.

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