Utah Shakespeare Festival’s ‘Othello’ shines emotional light on the best and worst of human nature

Wayne T. Carr as Othello and Brian Vaughn as Iago in the Utah Shakespeare Festival's production of "Othello," Cedar City, Utah, date not specified | Photo by and courtesy of Karl Hugh. Copyright Utah Shakespeare Festival 2018, St. George News / Cedar City News

CEDAR CITY — Let us now praise the Shakespearean tragedy for its ability to cause humans to examine themselves on a level that only art can. At least, such is the case with the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s production of “Othello.”

Though it is believed to have been written in 1603, the play delves into themes –  including jealousy, power, revenge, hate and love – that are just as prevalent and true today as they were over 400 years ago. And as with many productions of Shakespeare, the director of “Othello” has chosen to follow this idea in a visual sense, trading the more traditional Shakespeare garb for modern apparel.

L-R: Brian Vaughn as Iago and Jeb Burris as Cassio in the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s production of “Othello,” Cedar City, Utah, date not specified | Photo by and courtesy of Karl Hugh. Copyright Utah Shakespeare Festival 2018, St. George News / Cedar City News

The story begins when Iago, a Venetian soldier and ensign, is passed over for a promotion by Othello, otherwise known as “the Moor,” a nobleman and general of the Venetian army. The promotion is given to Cassio, a man with less experience than Iago.

In the beginning of the play, Othello has reached the pinnacle of his career and his love life having secretly wed Desdemona, who is the daughter of an important statesman in Venice.

Iago, who plainly states he hates the Moor, vows to ruin Othello’s happiness in part because he feels slighted and in part because his nature is such that he enjoys causing others pain.

In Iago’s character audiences see the worst parts of human nature, namely a lust for power and a twisted sense of satisfaction in being the cause of someone else’s demise. And he doesn’t care how many people are hurt or even killed in the process.

Played deftly by Brian Vaughn, Iago owns two thirds of the story, and I have sometimes wondered why it is called “Othello” rather than “Iago.” More on that later.

Vaughn has a commanding presence on stage, which pulls the audience into his sinister plots to the point that there is a palpable tension that builds until the final scene.

Countering Iago’s darkness is the effervescent Desdemona, played with so much passion and light by Betsy Mugavero.

Mugavero’s portrayal of Desdemona on stage is the epitome of how Othello describes her after the two have reunited having been apart for some time.

If after every tempest come such calms,
May the winds blow till they have waken’d death!

Desdemona is the only character who remains a pure, calming and loyal character throughout, and Mugavero’s performance is full of purity and innocence.

L-R: Wayne T. Carr as Othello and Betsy Mugavero as Desdemona in the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s production of “Othello,” Cedar City, Utah, date not specified |Photo by and courtesy of Karl Hugh. Copyright Utah Shakespeare Festival 2018, St. George News / Cedar City News

Though Iago works his plot in many ways, it is through jealousy that he attempts to cause ruination on Othello.

By planting the seed that his wife might be unfaithful, Iago is able to cause Othello to unravel.

This is when Othello, played by Wayne T. Carr, takes center stage of the action. For the most part, Othello is kind, a good leader and a man whom most people admire. However, he was also a tad placid compared to Iago, but once he starts believing Iago’s implications that Desdemona is cheating on him with Cassio, Carr’s performance transformed.

His anger and uncontrolled jealousy could be felt all the way on the back row. That raw emotion was a frightening thing to behold.

Rounding out a quartet of solid performances is Katie Cunningham, who plays Emilia, Iago’s wife. Cunningham brings strength and mischief to the women of Othello and gives Emilia a solid backbone, although it may not actually be to the character’s benefit.

The four standout characters are backed by a solid cast of Shakespearean actors – including Jeb Burris as the unwitting Cassio, who has no clue he is being framed for adultery – all of whom contribute to the depth of the production.

This production of “Othello” is staged in the Eileen and Allen Anes Studio Theatre, an intimate black box theater. Besides the modern costumes, the scenery is stripped down to the bare minimum. Some music, lighting and sound effects are employed for ambiance.

For me, director Kate Buckley’s choice to take the minimalist approach really allowed the acting to shine and made for some extremely emotional scenes.

A word of warning to audiences: Othello depicts scenes of violence that are extremely convincing and could be upsetting. There were points toward the end so real I cried real tears.

L-R: Brian Vaughn as Iago and Katie Cunningham as Emilia in the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s production of “Othello,” Cedar City, Utah, date not specified | Photo by and courtesy of Karl Hugh. Copyright Utah Shakespeare Festival 2018, St. George News / Cedar City News

It is after these emotional scenes, when Othello learns the truth of Iago’s deception and begs those who could hear him to speak of him “as one that lov’d not wisely but too well,” that I realized why it is called “Othello” and not “Iago.”

Even though the presence of Iago is much stronger, we know him to be a liar, a power monger and a manipulator. We expect nothing but dishonesty and treachery from his character. But Othello, who is seemingly so good, is also so human. He puts his trust in Iago rather than his wife and lets the force of jealousy overpower him.

Othello shows audiences the fallibility of humans and hopefully helps them to avoid succumbing to the same emotions and ultimate mistakes.

That is the true power of art. And it can be found at the Utah Shakespeare Festival.

Othello plays on various days and at various times Monday-Saturday until Oct. 13. Matinee tickets are $50 and evening showings are $54. Tickets can be purchased online, in person at the Box Office located in the Beverley Center for the Arts or by calling 800-752-9849 or 435-586-7878.

Event details

  • What: Utah Shakespeare Festival’s production of “Othello.”
  • When: “Othello” plays in rotation with the other 2018 productions on various days and times until Oct. 13.
  • Where: Eileen and Allen Anes Studio Theatre, Beverley Center for the Arts, 195 W. Center St., Cedar City.
  • Cost: $50-$54.
  • Purchase tickets: Online, in person at the Box Office located in the Beverley Center for the Arts or by calling 800-752-9849 or 435-586-7878.

Email: hreina@stgnews.com

Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2018, all rights reserved.

 

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