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ISF's Othello

Idaho Shakespeare Festival's new production challenges audiences

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Jealously, fear, pride, self doubt: raw, primal emotions that can lead each of us to unthinkable places. There is no difference if you're a prince or a pauper, or—in the case of the Idaho Shakespeare Festival's most recent production, Othello—a celebrated military general.

Shakespeare's classic tragedy has long been used as a study of racism, but the ISF production goes well beyond that to delve into the universal dark side of humanity. The result is a play that is at once intriguing to watch and emotionally challenging.

As people often do when confronted by an unexpected or uncomfortable situation, members of the audience at the opening night performance laughed at some rather inappropriate moments—like when Othello confesses his intention to strangle his wife—but this could be seen a compliment to the cast and crew: they were getting people to pay attention.

The premise of the play is the timeless tale of the outsider. In this case, it's Othello (David Alan Anderson), a celebrated Venetian general who happens to be a Moor. And while the powers of Venice are happy to take advantage of his skills as a soldier, many draw the line at seeing him as an equal in any other way.

When Othello elopes with Desdemona (Sara M. Bruner), the daughter of a Venetian senator, her father vows revenge, only grudgingly giving his consent while still expressing his hatred.

But the most vengeful of all is Iago (David Anthony Smith), Othello's longtime ensign who was passed over for promotion in favor of the educated Cassio (Kevin Crouch). With a smile on his face and a knife at the ready to stab anyone in the back, Iago vies to take down both men by leading Othello to believe that Cassio has been having an affair with Desdemona.

The results: death, destruction, chaos—about what you'd expect from a Shakespearian tragedy.

For the first half of the production, Othello sits firmly on the sidelines, while Iago is allowed to shine. ISF veteran Smith does a wonderful job of developing the villain, stepping away from playing the character as a man out for blind revenge and instead making him calculating, cold and, ultimately, soulless. Smith actually plays many of Iago's lines for a laugh, which far from adding warmth to the production, is actually unnerving considering what he's trying to do. Smith also gets some extra kudos for managing to recite Shakespearian monologues while doing full pullups and pushups—not and easy feat.

Anderson is allowed to reach his stride in the second act, when Iago's mental warfare has taken up residence in the recesses of Othello's mind. As Othello's self-doubt festers, his growing paranoia and rage are beautifully executed by Anderson, whose powerful presence is used to full advantage.

As Iago manipulates everyone around him—including his own wife, Emilia (Laura Perrotta)—his web grows too large to support itself, bringing nearly everyone caught in it down in a catastrophic style.

The mood of the production is left on the shoulders of the actors, who fully utilize the simple set designed by Russell Metheny (no doubt with a bit of input from director Risa Brainin). The stage is dominated by massive steel scaffolding, complete with ladders and a catwalk, which allows the cast not only to make use of multiple levels, but actually perform the occasional acrobatic turn off.

The effect is stark, alluding to the cage the players are caught in, as well as giving a nod to the story's military backdrop. The military angle is also played up with the use of tight, rhythmic moments between the soldiers, as well as some always enjoyable fight scenes.

The set is used particularly well as Othello carries Desdemona's shrouded body from the bed, pulling the white sheet with him, creating a dramatic physical connection between the front and back of the stage.

As the play reached its tragic climax on opening night, the audience was held in rapt attention as the rage, sorrow and misguided pride of both Othello and Iago left a literal body count.

As Iago is about to be led away in chains, he is asked to look at the bloody repercussions of his actions. In response, Smith flashes a cold, mocking smile and slowly claps. It's a chilling moment that is sure to linger in the minds of audiences throughout the play's run.

Othello runs through Sunday, Aug. 29. For more information, visit idahoshakespeare.org.

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