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OTHELLO, Utah Shakespearean Festival, Southern Utah State College campus, Cedar City, Tuesday and Friday evenings at 8:30 p.m. through Sept. 3. For ticket information call 586-7878.

Audience members at the opening night of "Othello" at the Utah Shakespearean Festival Friday night paid actor Patrick Page the ultimate compliment for his performance as Iago.They booed him.

Not everyone in the audience celebrated his final bow thus, of course. Most sufficed with a simple but heartfelt standing ovation. But there were enough boos to be heard, continuing the theatrical tradition of rewarding an effective presentation of one of Shakespeare's most diabolical heavies with the sound usually reserved for sheet-covered trick-or-treaters, melodrama villains and Frank Layden at Utah Jazz home games.

But never was a Bronx cheer more richly deserved or painstakingly earned than this. Page's USF track record is fast approaching legendary status. Festival regulars remember his show-stopping performances as Pandarus in "Troilus and Cressida," Don Armado in "Love's Labour's Lost," Brutus in "Julius Caesar" and Dr. Caius in "The Merry Wives of Windsor." Few thought he could ever top last year's brilliant turn in the title role of "Richard III." And while he may not have topped it with Iago, he has certainly equaled it in a production that will likely be remembered as the triumph of the festival's 27th season.

Under the direction of the gifted Libby Appel (who, by adding "Othello" to past festival accomplishments like 1984's "Troilus and Cressida" and 1986's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," may be carving out a considerable niche for herself in USF history), Page creates a vicious, evil Iago who is believably two-faced. Even though we are allowed to see the blackness of his heart, we can also see why other characters continue to trust him and refer to him as "honest, honest Iago." Page and Appel have kept the character under control, resisting the temptation to overplay, and trusting Shakespeare's words and their own interpretive skills to make their point.

That their point was being successfully made was clear early in the first act of Friday night's performance. Audience chuckles at each shocking new development in his plan to bring down Othello, the Moor of Venice, his angelic wife Desdemona and the noble Cassio indicated that Page's Iago was, indeed, a villain people loved to hate. When the lights came down on act one and a particularly powerful stage picture of the sneering Iago and the duped Othello, the gentleman sitting next to me smiled, shook his head and said, "What a jerk!"

Another fine compliment for Page.

As astounding as Page's performance is, however, he does not dominate and overwhelm the production as he did last year in "Richard III." Instead he serves as the fiery fuse that ignites an explosion of talent on the Adams Memorial Theatre stage.

LeWan Alexander, for example, more than holds his own as Othello, the tragic general whose jealousies are manipulated by Iago. Alexander gives us an appealing, passionate Othello, a man who is equal parts mystery and nobility and whose greatest fault is that he "loved not wisely, but too well." That he is able to maintain command of the stage in the face of Page's assault on audience attention is ample testimony of Alexander's artistry and the strength of his performance.

Similarly, Monica Bell presents a rich and rewarding interpretation of Desdemona, Othello's beautiful and faithful wife whose honor is called into question by the scheming Iago. Bell's Desdemona is a lively lass, full of spirit, good will and love for her man. Her courage in the face of Othello's jealous rage makes her ultimate end that much more tragic.

Special mention should also be made of strong performances by Dennis Rees as Cassio, the honorable lieutenant whose promotion over Iago sets off the villain's devious plan, and Tina Witek as Emilia, Desdemona's faithful servant and Iago's wife.

In fact, the entire cast performs superbly, a tribute to the skill of the USF ensemble and to Appel's interpretational and directorial skill. Clearly she has captured the horrible reality of evil so oppressive that it exacts its terrible price despite the best efforts of good and noble men and women. And she has done so with with a firm hand on the play's controls, holding her actors back from playing to emotional extremes and forcing them to operate within realistic parameters - ultimately more powerful and satisfying for all concerned.

Appel's eye for visual clarity is also evident throughout. Stage pictures are sharp and focused. Her actors move with precision and motivation. Pacing and timing are impeccable, and the detail work is exquisite beginning to end.

Her staff, too, make impressive contributions to the success of "Othello," especially designer Ron Ranson Jr. and costumer Elizabeth Novak, who outdid themselves with work of superior craftsmanship. Cheers to all.

Except Page. We're more inclined to boo him this time out. Heartily.