If all Shakespeare’s villains, surely “Othello’s” Iago is among the oiliest, craftiest and most careful. Played with the right touch, he can be the center of attention and leave Othello seeming like a supporting character in his own play.
In the Utah Shakespearean Festival production, Iago is played by Martin Kildare, a supremely talented actor whose handsome face has just a hint of roughness around it. As Iago plots his revenge against Othello — for passing him over for a promotion, no less — you can see in Kildare’s eyes that the wheels of machination are turning. So convincing is his performance that one is tempted to believe he is not reciting a speech written 400 years ago by Shakespeare, but rather coming up with his own plan extemporaneously. It is an exciting performance, and it does indeed overshadow Othello.
Othello is played by David Toney, who makes the Moor of Venice as confident and sexual as he ought to be — powerful enough to woo a woman not of his race away from her father, and stimulating enough to keep her. His bug-eyed rage over Desdemona’s alleged unfaithfulness is frightening.
In Acts IV and V, however, Othello’s emotions become more complex, and Toney is not up to the task. In particular, his performance in the final scene, upon learning of his true betrayal by Iago, lacks legitimacy. Horror at what he has done would be appropriate, as would, perhaps, blind fury. Toney’s choice is more in the realm of histrionics and melodrama, and it doesn’t register. It could be argued that such an operatic ending calls for over-the-top acting, but the 4 1/2 acts before it aren’t played that way; the last scene is no time to start.
Susan Shunk is winsome and fragile as Desdemona, and Carrie Baker’s deep-throated delivery makes Iago’s wife Emilia a force to be reckoned with. James Knight and Jason Michael Spelbring do well as Cassio and Roderigo. And my hat is off to fight director Robin McFarquhar for choreographing a thrilling swordfight between Cassio and Montano (Kieran Connolly).
Director Howard Jensen — who played Othello in the 1963 USF production — has the unenviable task of keeping things moving in one of Shakespeare’s more padded-out plays. (Once Othello decides he will kill Cassio and Desdemona, the outcome is a foregone conclusion — and yet there is another 90 minutes of script before we get to it.) Generally speaking, the pace is quick and lively, especially whenever Kildare is onstage, expertly handling the audience as well as Iago manipulates the other characters.
When Howard Jensen played Othello in the 1963 production, he did it in black-face makeup. Things have certainly changed since 1963.
The plot summary for this and the other Shakespeare shows at the festival ran alongside the reviews in The Daily Herald. I did them separately because while many readers are unfamiliar with Shakespearean plots, to include them within the reviews would upset the readers who do know the stories (and who assume everyone else does, too).