A Review of “Othello” by The Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre

Othello is a timeless play with ever-current themes of race and jealousy. It exposes chilling views on intimacy, marriage, and self-destruction. The Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre brings this 400-year-old tragedy back to life in its traditional setting, 16th Century Venice and Cyprus. The performances were visceral and snappy and the bare-bones set added a layer of austerity that matched the tragic ending.

I’ve always thought the play should be called Iago as the performance of that character tends to steal the show. This production was no exception, J Hernandez was spectacular! The play always begins with Iago, and it is his devilish manipulations that drive the story forward. Iago plays on various sins to get his revenge, from Rodrigo’s lust to Othello’s jealousy to Cassio’s excess drinking. All of the characters think him an honest good man, but by the time everyone realizes his scheme it is too late.

Othello was a great show but for a few distractions. In some cases the costumes were overly bright or glitzy, especially considering the muted set design and lack of props. Additionally, some bold print choices seemed ill-fitting for the characters wearing them. Othello’s performance (by Forrest McClendon), while honest and heart-wrenching, was not quite on the same plane as the rest of the ensemble and his interactions with the other characters were jarring. Desdemona (Lauren Sowa) was performed with more sass and playfulness than other productions I have seen. I liked the direction they took with that, but it did not seem to blend well with their super-serious Othello.

Nevertheless, the show was entertaining and engaging. What stood out the most from this production was the dark music (Fabian Obispo) and the lighting choices (Maria Shaplin). The performances of Iago (J Hernandez) and Emilia (Eleni Delopoulos) were stellar. I also appreciated the directing choices of Carmen Khan (for example, the scene where Emilia and Desdemona sit in bed and talk frankly about women in marriage and how faithfulness is expected but not always granted or received in return). Othello is at its best in the many intimate moments and soliloquies.

Othello will run at The Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre until May 18. Tickets can be purchased for $30 at www.philadelphiashakespearetheatre.org or by calling (215) 496-9722. The Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre is located at 2111 Sansom Street.

Can’t get enough Iago? For an extra layer of insight into one of Shakespeare’s greatest villains check out “Iago on the Couch,” a therapy session with J Hernandez (in character as Iago) and Dr. Dan Gottlieb of WHYY’s Voices in the Family. The event will be hosted at WHYY’s studios at 150 N. 6th Street, $25 for members and $35 for non-member. Purchase by calling The Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre Box office at (215) 496-8001 or online at www.phillyshakespeare.org.