UVU’s OTHELLO just might take your breath away

Playing thru October 1, 2011

OREM — One of Shakespeare‘s most enduring plays is the tragedy Othello. Ever since its first recorded performance for King James I of England in 1604, Othello has been hugely popular; several performances are recorded in Shakespeare’s lifetime and after the English Civil War (during which the theaters were all closed by Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan allies in power), Othello was one of the first revived plays and it has never diminished in popularity. Despite this, I had never seen a production of Othello, and I was eager to see the opening performance of this highly respected Shakespeare play at Utah Valley University.

Othello tells the story of the title character (called “the Moor of Venice,” a Moor being a word in Shakespeare’s time that referred to anybody of African or Arab descent), who is a general in the Venetian military. At the beginning of the play, it is revealed that he has eloped with his wife Desdemona, much to the chagrin of her family. Othello has also recently promoted Michael Cassio to be his lieutenant, passing over the well qualified Iago. Furious at being overlooked for a promotion that he believes he deserved, Iago plots revenge against Othello and turns the general against his wife through subtle manipulation of Othello and the people around him.

The showcase of this piece, unquestionably, is the acting. Baron Kelly takes on the role of Othello and completely embodies the character to make him believable in every scene. Kelly’s Othello is regal, but human. He seems like an accessible man who understands the solemn burden of military leadership that has been placed upon him. More importantly, Kelly gives the audience an Othello who is fully committed a course of action once he decides upon it. I understood this fortitude as being instrumental in Othello’s rise to power (which happened before the play starts), yet also ends up being Othello’s fatal flaw. The strength and certainty that Kelly gives to Othello makes this flaw—and its consequences—seem natural.

Also outstanding in the cast is Barrett Ogden as Iago. More ruthless than Richard III, more amoral than Macbeth, more vengeful than Hamlet, and more conniving than Cassius, Iago is probably one of Shakespeare’s most villainous characters. Ogden portrays this villainy without ever making Iago cartoony or a caricature.  Ogden deftly portrays an Iago who is willing to wait and carefully execute his plans in order to exact the fullest possible measure of vengeance that he desires. It doesn’t matter whether Iago is manipulating Rodrigo (Greg Larsen), Emilia (Elizabeth Golden), Cassio (William Cooper Howell), or Othello himself; Ogden makes the manipulations believable both to the other characters and to me as an audience member.

I also appreciated William Cooper Howell’s portrayal as Cassio. Rather than a naïve, clueless Cassio, Howell gives the audience a Cassio who falls victim to Iago because of the implicit trust that must exist between soldiers who wear the same uniform. As Cassio, Howell displays a wide range of acting talent that ranges from flirtatious to noble to despairing. I especially admired Howell’s acting when he is convinced to celebrate with the other men after a victory and the aftermath of his drunkenness. These scenes instilled in me a sympathy for Cassio that endured for the rest of the play (even when he was sleeping around with women).

Rounding out the list of superb actors in this cast are the two main women: Natalie Devine Riskas as Desdemona and Elizabeth Golden as Emilia. Riskas’s Desdemona was a fearless woman who braved the prejudices of her society and her family to marry Othello but—like many women—doesn’t fully understand the man she has chosen. Riskas also portrays a strong Desdemona in the way she comfortably moves about the masculine world of the military, especially in the first half of the play. Golden’s Emilia is a surprisingly deep supporting character. As Desdemona’s friend and Iago’s wife, Emilia was delightful as both an unwitting accomplice of Cassio and one of the most tragic victims of his scheming.

Shakespeare’s script is superb and before the production reached intermission, it was clear to me why it was so beloved. In the hands of director James Arrington, Shakespeare’s careful plotting is obvious. I was particularly impressed how Arrington was able to carefully let the intrigue in the production increase gradually and slowly, much like the rising tide. I think this was appropriate because Iago is patient in his revenge, so a directorial vision that steadily builds up the tension is suitable for this script. I also approve of Arrington’s decision to set the play in Italy during World War II. Othello is such a universal story of revenge, jealousy, hatred, and love that it almost doesn’t matter when the play takes place, as long as it is during a war. By choosing to put the production in the recent past, I believe that Arrington has made the story more relateble for modern audiences than it would be if set during the 16th century.

The biggest shortcoming in the production is the sound. Many microphones were working inconsistently and sometimes the sound was distorted when an actor was shouting. But this is a perennial complaint of UTBA reviewers who attend productions on opening night and I believe that the other technical elements make up for the sound problems. There were also a few actors in the cast with minor roles (such as soldiers or messengers) who had seemed uncomfortable or wooden in their roles. However, the strong lead actors that I’ve mentioned in this review are so compelling that it is easy to overlook the occasional clunky line delivery.

I was impressed by Jared Lewis’s costumes, which efficiently conveyed information about every character’s rank, status, or function in society during every scene. This was especially true during the first quarter of the play when the audience is getting to know these characters and learning how they interrelate to one another. Steven Purdy’s set was versatile and served to remind me of a World War II bunker without being unsightly. I also think the set blended in well with the architecture of the surrounding UVU courtyard.

In short, UVU’s production of Othello is a treat and unquestionably worth the price of admission. For this outdoor show, I suggest you bring sunglasses (you will be facing the sun in the west for about the first 30 minutes of the play), a jacket to guard against the early evening chill, and some bug spray. Sit on the front row like I did and you’ll soon join the millions of fans who have come to love Othello for the past 400 years.

Othello plays in the courtyard of the Sorensen Student Center on the campus of Utah Valley University in Orem at 5:30 PM every evening through October 1, except Sundays and September 29. Tickets are free (for standing room at the back of the viewing area) or $3-5 for seats closer to the stage. For more information, visit www.uvu.edu/theatre.

About Russell Warne

By day, Russell Warne is a mild-mannered psychology professor. By night, he is the managing editor for UTBA, which means he reads and edits every review posted to the site. In the past he has served as an actor (The Wizard of Oz, Ragtime, The Red Badge of Courage, and many others), music director (West Side Story twice, The King and I, Joyful Noise, and others), assistant music director (Big River), rehearsal and orchestra pianist ( Annie Get Your Gun), playwright (The Decameron), lighting technician (The Foreigner), and dramaturg (Overtones). Since May 2012 he has been a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.