After sleeping five hours in the car at a highway rest area in the mountains of Colorado, I set off toward Cedar City, Utah before dawn. I was desperate to make it to Utah Shakespeare in time to see their matinee of Othello at 2pm.
I averaged about 85mph on those empty stretches of painted Utah landscape, and passed the drive mostly without incident, except for one anxiety-inducing period when I almost ran out of gas because there were no gas stations for a couple hundred miles.
I made it to Cedar City at noon and got my first glimpse of the Utah Shakespeare Festival. Coming from a smaller theatre on the east coast, I’m still bewildered by the size of the larger festivals out west. It’s an enormous place: two larger theatres and one smaller studio theatre, on beautiful grounds with outdoor areas for lectures and discussions and pre-show entertainment on the large lawn. There’s a giant statue of festival founder Fred Adams in the center of it all, making Fred the only person I’ve ever met who has a statue. Fred is a wonderful and kind human being, and one of the first people I had the pleasure of meeting at my first Shakespeare Theatre Association conference a couple of years ago and I was glad to get to see him hanging out at the pre-show my first evening in town.
It’s an even more impressive place if you get to take a tour of their backstage areas, which another friend, former executive director Scott Phillips, was kind enough to do for me on my last night in town. There’s a costume shop that takes up nearly a city block, dressing rooms, a wig shop, it’s like a miniature city behind the scenes. The level of coordination and industry happening backstage at a festival like that is dizzying.
Utah Shakespeare’s Othello
I barely had time to drop my bags at the apartment I was staying in before I had to rush back over to the theatre to see the matinee of Othello. I was particularly excited for this production because my friend Brian Vaughn, artistic director of USF was playing Iago. I was also excited because Othello was being staged in their smaller, studio theatre. In general I love smaller, more intimate productions, and that is especially true of certain productions like Othello that has a tight, almost claustrophobic feel.
This production felt like it was tailored especially for my enjoyment. A spare set, minimal props, and an aesthetic that felt vaguely modern but intentionally non-specific. The fights were all with knives; there were no guns or smartphones. The only change in set involved pulled out a bed in the last act for Desdemona’s murder.
It was exactly how Othello should be played. Intimate, dark, and stripped down. The whole production was downright muscular: tight, powerful line delivery, consistently high tension, strong and forceful transitions.
It has been said that one of the signs of a dictator is that they’re actually scariest when they’re in a good mood. That would also be true of this Iago. In spite of the fact that I know Brian, I was legitimately frightened of this Iago.
There wasn’t a weak spot in the cast, but if I had to pick a favorite other than Iago, it was Emilia. She is one of my favorite characters in Othello and so I come into any production with high expectations of how she’ll be played. This was the Emilia I’ve always wanted, tall, commanding, and above all incredibly brave.
Perhaps the most powerful and unsettling moment in the show was in the end, after the deaths of Othello, Desdemona, and Emilia, when Iago has been wounded by Othello and sits on the floor of the chamber, next to the bed, waiting for the authorities to take him away for imprisonment and torture. He rests his head on the bed, and stares into Desdemona’s face. A moment of remorse? A quiet satisfaction? The face of evil looking in to the face of good?
The worst moment of the show for me had nothing to do with the actors, but with the audience. When Othello smothered Desdemona, a lot of audience members laughed. All I could think in that moment was that it explained why Shakespeare is, in my mind, literature first and theatre second. That is obviously not to say that I don’t enjoy theatre, I love theatre, but the wonderful thing about reading Shakespeare, is that I don’t share the vast imaginary world of my mind with other people who might think Desdemona’s murder is funny.
It took all my willpower not to turn around and ask the laughers what the hell was wrong with them that they could laugh at such a horrible act, such a distressing moment? I have had two female friends murdered by men, one of them by a jealous partner. I don’t think there’s anything remotely funny about this kind of violence. Of course I understand that people can laugh for many reasons, including discomfort, but I am perhaps too cynical and pessimistic to give the people in the audience that much credit. I have had similar experiences in the past, I was horrified when a couple of women behind me laughed hilariously during the blinding of Gloucester when I saw King Lear in London in 2014. I don’t if people are truly heartless or if they simply have trouble suspending disbelief when it comes to violence, thanks to the advanced special effects of movies and television that make stage violence seem almost quaint. Or perhaps I’m just a morose and uptight nerd who takes everything far too seriously?
It’s hard to imagine that the entirety of Shakespeare’s audience would have taken every moment seriously. If Hamlet’s opinion of Renaissance theatre audiences is any indication, a large number of them probably would’ve laughed at moments that the rest of us consider blood-chilling.
The one thing the audience did right, however, was jump to their feet instantly at curtain call.
Utah Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor
That evening, I changed gears in a big way and saw The Merry Wives of Windsor in the larger theatre.
Unlike the Othello, the director of Merry Wives set the play in a very specific time period, the turn of the century. With costumes, musics, and props, it was tied neatly to the pre-WWI, suffragette period, including the ladies Ford and Page coming on stage at the top of the show with “Votes For Women” placards.
It was a show that clearly understood the material, going for fun and accessibility rather than gravitas.
Merry Wives is a bit of fluff, a nonsensical spinoff of the Henry IV plays where Shakespeare takes some of the characters from those 14th century history plays and sets them — without explanation — in his own time, and gets them into a lot of harmless hijinks. The problem with the play is that it uses characters from a much more popular set of plays but doesn’t do them justice or explain the changes to their relationships. Falstaff and Mistress Quickly are close in the Henry plays, she’s the one by Falstaff’s bedside when he dies in Henry V, but in the Merry Wives we get a Falstaff and a Quickly who, aside from being transported centuries into the future, don’t seem to know one another at all. Theatrical apocrypha has it that Queen Elizabeth enjoyed the Henry plays so much that she asked for a play about Falstaff in love, and the obliging Shakespeare dashed this off in a just a few days.
I actually read Merry Wives and saw a production before I ever read or saw any of the history plays, so my introduction to these characters was in this play. I enjoyed this play a lot more before I got to know the real Falstaff and the real Mistress Quickly in the Henry plays.
But that’s the play itself, and not the production. Utah’s production of the show is about as fun of a production as you’re ever likely to see. The director staged an introduction at the top of the show, wherein the characters state their names for the audience before the action begins, and filled the show with songs from the period, almost transforming the show into a full-blown musical.
My personal favorite in the show was the empty-headed Slender. A young, likeable idiot, Slender tries his hardest to be obliging and cooperative to everyone, including his uncle who pushes him into trying to woo and marry the eligible Anne Page. But lacking any social awareness or any real desire to marry Anne Page, Slender’s attempts to go along with his uncle’s plans are laughably ineffective.
The only problem with the show, was that with the introduction and all the songs, the show ran to three hours. Even as someone who loves Shakespeare and has a longer attention span for theatre, I start to lose a little bit of my interest once we pass the 2:45 mark. Add to this the fact that I had been up since 5am and had only slept four hours in a car the night before, and I was having trouble keeping my eyes during the last act. But the show’s merits certainly outweighed its flaws, and if a few extra minutes of songs is the worst thing about a show, it’s safe to say it was enjoyable.
One thing I really love about Utah Shakespeare is all of the additional programming that goes on on the grounds of the festival. In the mornings, there are hour-long seminars with a dramaturge who gives a short lecture on the plays that ran the day before and then leads a discussion with audience members. As a text and history nerd, I couldn’t miss that, so all three mornings I was in Cedar City, I got up early and went over to the festival grounds for the seminar.
Tuesday morning I went to the seminar to discuss Othello and The Merry Wives of Windsor. The dramaturge leading the discussions was Kate Moncrief, a professor at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland. The first day’s discussion focused on how jealousy is portrayed in both shows. In Othello, jealousy is tragic and ends with the deaths of several characters, but in Merry Wives, jealousy is a joke, a farce, a toy played for laughs.
A lot of the older subscribers were bothered by elements of the shows, especially Merry Wives, with its 20th century setting. The larger theatre where Merry Wives played, I found out, is normally home to only the historical, period style productions. They were also bothered by the music and by a small, barely noticeable gay love story between two minor characters that the director chose to insert. In spite of the reservations from some of the more conservative folks, the discussion was interesting and did feature a lot of pretty insightful questions and comments from the audience.
I spent Tuesday afternoon trying to catch up on writing blogs and answering emails before seeing Henry VI Part 1. More on that in the next entry.