Othello, Dir. Kate Buckley for the Utah Shakespeare Festival. Anes Studio Theatre, Cedar City, Utah, Sept. 8, 2018.
Reviewed by Porter Lunceford (Weber State University)
The Utah Shakespeare Festival’s Othello was put on this year as part of the theme of tolerance. “The idea of intolerance and the adverse effects of intolerance on humanity runs through all the shows,” stated Brian Vaughn, USF’s artistic director and Iago in Buckley’s production. Given the current political climate and messaging, this theme appears to be well placed. However, Iago’s dominance sometimes overshadowed the thematic idea as the production emphasized the aspects of manipulation and infection. In the play, Iago’s words drive and control the plot and the characters. The production drew attention towards the words themselves, and emphasized Iago’s words as a vessel of infection for evil and tragedy. Despite the apparent tension between the dominance of the villain and the festival’s theme, the production managed to tie these two ideas together in a very successful manner.
The stage of the Anes was largely bare, with minimal props and iron-grated doors on stage. The lighting allowed the story to be easily followed, creating simple but effective pictures both in front of and behind the doors. All of this allowed the audience to focus on what we were hearing. This was further instilled by the black-box theatre space of the Anes Studio, with just a few hundred seats for an audience coming to see a popular and well-known piece of Shakespeare. The small, intimate space allowed the actors, Vaughn in particular, to interact with the audience and convey moments directly to them. In some moments characters were close to the audience, in aisles between and behind the seating. Iago’s lines of deception became more personal, more directed at the audience in this setting than they would have been if he were more distant from the audience in a larger playing space.
Race and racism were still key factors in the workings of this play and as possible explanations towards Iago’s motives. The production remained true to the source material and did not deconstruct the story of Othello or adapt the ending further. Historically, portraying Othello’s downfall as a reluctant and forced response to racism marked a shift into portraying a more sympathetic Othello (played effectively here by Wayne T. Carr), in order to finally drop the portrayal of a black man as an insane beast or monster. The majority of the cast was white, save for a few characters such as Bianca (Aidaa Peerzada) and Montano (Jamil Zraikat) who were also pushed into the roles of outsiders, given they are native to Cyprus. Though many productions have chosen to utilize all white performers, save for Othello, to make a point, Buckley’s drew a clear distinction with this casting between the Venetian and the Cypriot characters, with Othello himself standing out amongst both.
The stage itself was mostly empty, save for the use of a set of main double doors, and two side doors. Over the course of act one the side doors were not touched, and characters entered only through the main doors. As things began to fall apart we saw the side doors being used in underhanded secrecy, most noticeably in the final scene when Othello entered to kill Desdemona (Betsy Mugavero). This was symbolically reflective of the hold Iago’s words had over Othello, as he was no longer up front with his wife and fully believed she was not up front with him, and he entered from the darkness to kill her.
Focusing on the original text’s words as modes of manipulation and infection, one of the earliest moments was in 1.1 when Iago referred to Othello animalistically, and Brabantio (Paul Michael Sandberg) was quick to be infected. As the play progressed, Vaughn emphasized Iago’s “dark” language, hitting the words “fair” and “black” while with Desdemona and Emilia (Katie Cunningham), and referencing “black Othello” when speaking to Cassio. Iago’s spell took hold over Othello in the third act, when Othello himself took up the usage of Iago’s words in reference to himself. “[Her] name, that was as fresh / As Dian’s visage, is now begrimed and black / As mine own face” (3.3.441-43). This marked the beginning of his downfall as he considered why Desdemona might have been unfaithful and concluded that his own skin color was the answer. This production took this idea of infection far enough that Carr’s Othello, at one point, had a violent seizure as a result of Iago’s words and machinations.
The production used lighting to emphasize its use of Iago’s words as infection, with notable moments such as darker lighting for certain scenes with Iago and Roderigo, or a nearly blacked out stage during the penultimate Iago moments such as Cassio’s stabbing. In contrast, Desdemona, who was not entrapped by Iago’s manipulations and never picked up on his infectious use of dark or animalistic words, was accompanied by bright lighting. The lighting and blocking came to a culmination in the final stage picture of the production to accentuate this idea of infection. The three bodies were piled on the bed bathed in red light, like a morbid cart of plague victims halted on the street, while the source and carrier (Iago) was bathed in blue on the ground in front of the death-bed.
The production’s focus on the words as a mode of manipulation and infection, paired with the main theme of the festival, tolerance, pulled together, for me, an image of modern day politics. The idea that the current U.S. administration has made several statements and actions that have frightened and hurt people of supposedly “different” identities tied well with Iago, though Iago himself was better with words. Not only did he enthrall and abuse Othello, but Emilia was also effectively portrayed as an abused wife. Even in Desdemona’s abuse and death we saw a struggle between the two as Mugavero fought back against Othello, rooting these women in a more modern reality. Overall, I was enthralled by the production. The implication that someone in power has the ability to manipulate with the use of words reflected the idea of words being a mode of infection that led an entire group of people into a tragic conclusion.
The views expressed in this post are the author’s own.