After 33 seasons, you might think the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival would have run out of firsts—but you’d be wrong. For the first time, the festival has added Monday nights to its schedule, meaning that the house is now lit seven days a week. In addition, this is the first time Othello has been performed at the Sand Harbor Amphitheatre. But that’s not the only reason to see the Foothill Theatre Company’s excellent production of this famous tragedy.
Most audiences are already familiar with the plot, or at least they vaguely remember it from high school English, but here’s a summary. The story takes place in Venice as a Turkish invasion threatens the island of Cyprus. Roderigo, a rich bachelor, has been paying Iago to help him woo the beautiful Desdemona. But Desdemona has secretly married Othello, a general in the Venetian army and Iago’s boss. Iago hates Othello for promoting another soldier, Cassio, to lieutenant instead of him, and he vows to destroy Othello. Turning one innocent person against another, Iago secretly weaves a web of deceit, playing on Othello’s insecurities to convince him that Desdemona and Cassio are having an affair. He ultimately stokes the fires of Othello’s jealousy to murderous consequences.
The performances in this production are uniformly strong. Of course, the scenery-chewing Iago tends to steal the show, and Scott Coopwood is excellent in the role, stalking furiously around the stage in a swirling black cape and delivering his lines with moustache-twirling glee. Reginald Jackson as Othello has an appropriately commanding presence and inspires just the right mix of horror and pity at his downfall. Carolyn Howarth is also enjoyable as Emilia, Desdemona’s faithful servant and Iago’s long-suffering wife.
Director Scott Gilbert wisely keeps the scenery minimal, using portable black panels to divide the stage from scene to scene. A stark black-and-white palette serves for the costumes; Othello is clad from head to toe in glowing white, and Iago is his counterpart in jet black. Desdemona’s yellow handkerchief—a gift from Othello, purloined and used by Iago as evidence of her adultery—is one of the only spots of color in the entire production; its sunny hue is a ghastly spectacle of cheerfulness as Iago’s machinations grow ever darker.
Although the Shakespeare at Lake Tahoe productions are always well-acted and directed, they run a serious risk of being upstaged (however innocently) by the setting. With the waters of Lake Tahoe in the background and the soft sand underfoot, it’s easy to get distracted by the natural beauty all around, especially when Nature decides to get involved in the show—as when a plump, confused squirrel wandered into the middle of Act I, momentarily halting the action while the actors watched it scamper across the stage.
Admittedly, Othello isn’t a feel-good play, and it definitely doesn’t have a happy ending, but that does not mean it won’t make for an excellent night of entertainment if you’re willing to make the drive up to Sand Harbor. Pack a picnic basket, bring some warm blankets, and take it from one who knows: it’s well worth the extra $3 to rent a chair. If you’ve never had the pleasure of seeing Shakespeare at Lake Tahoe, this season could be a first for you, too.