“Men should be what they seem.”

Iago was correct, but it was Shakespeare who ensured a chilling effect by having those words uttered by a calculating psychopath.

Malcolm Rodgers, who plays Iago in Livermore Shakespeare Festival’s extraordinary production of Othello, said, “There is something cathartic about playing an unrepentant, opportunistic and vengeful character. Iago is terrified of being discarded — whether as a white man, a soldier or a lover — and this fear comes out in many devious and wonderful (for the actor) ways.”

For audience members, this production is equally compelling. But time is running out: the final two shows of Othello take place on Friday, July 19, and Sunday, July 21, at 7:30 p.m., at Wente’s Estate Winery & Tasting Room, 5565 Tesla Road in Livermore.

“What's interesting and advantageous about the way the play is written is that it is so linear; one scene almost spills into the next,” Rodgers added. “For Iago, it is one long journey of constantly striving to achieve his goals.”

Othello tells the story of a powerful black general who married the white Desdemona. Othello’s ensign Iago, seething that another soldier, Cassio, has been promoted to lieutenant instead of himself, seeks to exact revenge on Othello, manipulating everyone around him. In the end, many lives are destroyed.

What makes the LSF production so superb is a series of insightful artistic choices made by Director Michael Wayne Rice that heighten Othello’s themes of racism, duplicity, honor, love, jealousy and revenge. For instance, although the play was originally set in Venice, Rice chose to set this production during the American Civil War, with Othello being a general for the Union. It was a decision that accentuates the drama’s messages about racism and its long history in our home country.

“There are big issues in the world that have never been properly addressed,” Rice said. “Racism is real. Destructive manipulation is real. Abuse towards women is real. And it continues to happen in our own backyard. In this country, there is still a lot healing that needs to happen.”

Another interesting and effective choice was Rice’s casting of Iago’s wife.

“The marriage of white Iago to black Emilia is deliberate. It is meant to send a message to highlight a faulty way of thinking about racial relations in the United States,” Rice said. “This is very evident to black people, and tends to be not so evident to white people. Racism is defined by how you treat a race of people, over time and to the extent in which negative, punitive actions and behaviors affect the subjected class of people. In other words, ‘I have a black friend’ or ‘I married a black person’" is statistically irrelevant in excluding oneself from being a racist. Moreover, we cannot exclude the notion that supremacy was and is about power, control, oppression and subjugation. This very dynamic is alive and well today in marriages across the world, continually perpetrated against women. What better way for a man who otherwise feels powerless in his ‘whiteness’ to feel powerful but than to marry a black woman — one whom he can control, manipulate and disregard without a second thought.”

While Rice’s perceptive artistic choices underscore the play’s dramatic themes, what makes Othello a not-to-be-missed production are the outstanding performances: Skyler Cooper brings exquisite life to the brilliant but vulnerable Othello; Rodgers downplays Iago’s true vileness, but with a glance reveals what truly lies beneath; Nicole Odell captures a strong woman who is ultimately flummoxed by betrayals; Summer Brown is deeply moving as Emilia, bringing heft to the pivotal role; Jeremy Gallardo plays Cassio with youthful gusto; and Natalie DeBoer brings moments of humor that provide momentary relief from the drama’s ever-building tension.

“As a general guideline, the shows this season are PG-13,” stated LSF Managing Director Katie Marcel. “With that being said, I am a huge advocate for exposing kids to live theater, and guiding discussion with them to help them process intense subject matter.”

Sensitive scenes include simulated whipping, stage violence, a protracted murder, and a couple minutes of cigar smoke.

Marcel also notes that this summer’s shows offer the last chance for audiences to experience LSF’s in-the-round stage at Wente. Next year, they’ll be moving to traditional outdoor theater at Darcie Kent Vineyards, also on Tesla Road.

“We look forward to expanding to year-round programming indoors downtown, and our Outdoor Vineyards program will continue,” she said. “The Livermore Valley Winegrowers have been an integral part of the growth and artistic development of this program, and have nurtured us along since 2002. As we have outgrown one venue, they have introduced us to our next host. Next year, we move out of in-the-round to a more traditional stage at Wente’s colleagues’ just down the street — Darcie Kent Vineyards. We’re so lucky to have generous and cooperative winemaking families that support our community.”

Next up for LSF is The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged)[revised], a comedy that covers all of The Bard’s 37 plays in 97 minutes. It opens on Thursday, July 18, and closes on Sunday, August 4. All shows begin at 7:30 p.m.

Tickets for either show typically range from $18 to $58, although some special events offer lower- and higher-priced tickets.

While the upcoming show promises to be laugh filled, there’s something enormously gratifying about a haunting tragedy on a warm summer night. The Civil War-era songs and spirituals, and the evocative performances, will likely stay with you for days on end.

“Othello lends itself readily to Post-Civil War America, Shakespearian England, or present day America; the themes of racism, intolerance, misogyny and revenge continue to pervade our culture and social structures,” said Rice. “I hope attendees take away a sense of the timelessness of this story, and an experience that excites and incites.”

To learn more, visit LivermoreShakes.org.