PROVO — I don’t consider myself a theater snob. I strive to remain very open minded and accepting of the performances that I am able to take in; particularly if I happen to be there in an official capacity, such as to review a show. I’m disappointed in myself that I must report that I had less than an open mind when I arrived at Memorial Park in Provo on Friday night to watch Shakespeare’s Othello. However (spoiler alert!) the story of my review has a happy ending so don’t get too riled up just yet. I arrived at the park, about 15 minutes before the show was scheduled to start, and there were 2 couples sitting on blankets facing an empty field. There was no “stage,” no lights, no signs – nothing at all to designate that a performance was about to occur. We could see what we rightly assumed to be the cast grouped together near a tree, joking and conversing. My wife and I shared a nervous glance, gathered our things and set off to stake out our plot for the evening. We weren’t quite sure where exactly the show would be taking place, so we set up our chairs and faced them towards our best guess. Luckily as more patrons arrived, we found that we had guessed correctly.
As the starting time approached, I was pleasantly surprised to note that our meager crowd of 6 had swelled to well over 75. I have always preferred a certain level of anonymity when going to the theater. I would rather not see the players before the show begins, which helps me to get lost in world where they’re trying to take me. The Utah Shakespeare in the Park theater troupe was up against insurmountable odds in this regard given that the production took place on a field. They made the most out of what they were given by mingling among the crowd and I’m pleased to report that it worked! I felt as though we had been pulled back through time to the 1600’s and our little village was being visited by a traveling troupe set to entertain us for the evening.
There was no cost to watch the production and no assigned seating. Just before the performance began, a man, who turned out to be Lawrence Fernandez who played Othello, stood before the audience and welcomed us to the show. He laid down a few ground rules, chief among which was the fact that they would be playing directly to and with the audience. They then proceeded to force the audience to move in, fill in the gaps and tighten up the seating. This was a fairly uncomfortable moment, but it set the tone for the evening that the players were in control.
In the title role Lawrence Fernandez did a very admirable job with the early portions of the show. He was very likable and magnetic. It was clear to understand why Jacqueline Johnson, as Desdemona would fall so unapologetically for this man, despite the warnings of her father. Unfortunately, Fernandez’s performance proved to be rather one-sided and he struggled somewhat with the more intense portions of the latter half of the text. Johnson, meanwhile, handled the complexities of her role masterfully. She was soft and giggly at times, frustrated, confused and terrified at all the right moments. Another very bright point for evening was Adam Argyle’s portrayal of Iago. He was absolutely committed and owned the stage when he tread the grassy boards. Bryce Peterson, who played Roderigo and a few other roles, offered the comic element to the production, and did so very well. He had an easy and comfortable cadence to his speech that played perfectly.
Commitment was a consistent theme of the performance. Every person who took the stage did so with an absolute passion for the work they were showing. That passion went a long way to override any short-comings the production may have had in the way of costumes, sets and other typical theatrical elements. It was clear that they had taken the time to fully understand the words they were saying, which makes the difference in a modern audience grasping and feeling the messages in a 400-year-old text. The one major frustration that I had with the production in general was the propensity for the cast to address many lines directly to the audience, even when it wasn’t called for. It was particularly distracting in intimate scenes between Othello and Iago, where they’re clearly meant to be deep in intricate conversation and Othello would throw every third or fourth line out to the audience. I understand the desired effect, but I felt that they’d have been better served by reserving those moments a bit.
In short, if you’re looking to have your expectations not met, but demolished, go and see this production. My hope is that you will come away with the same changed, humbled perspective as I did.