Psst…the Play Is Always the Thing at Philly Shakes Theatre

Lew Whittington
Huffington Post, Arts & culture journalist

Carmen Kahn, artistic director of the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre, keeps devising new ways to present Shakespeare as vital living theater for contemporary audiences. PST has fencing seminars, Bardian cabarets and a network of regional school outreach to engage students with the actors, designers and theater artists who make it happen. Kahn also runs one of the few companies in Philadelphia that presents work in repertoire. An almost lost art. What could be more apropos in the age of political revenge than Othello to open their 2013 season.

Othello is one of Shakespeare’s most compelling and in many ways, sketchy plays, even as it deals with lust, jealousy, betrayal, brutality and the lies and manipulations of one of dramatic lit’s most archetypal villains, Iago.

Like The Merchant of Venice, it also has a thorny racial component. Is Othello meant to be black, Arab or of mixed ethnicity. Its controversies go back centuries and has been freighted with negative racial implications, which usually reflected the society of the time. Shakespeare gives debatable clues in the script and provides hazy assumptions of race politics.

Smart directors like Kahn let the text alone inform it and the audience can come to their own conclusions. Equally problematic in the play are the women’s roles, which are implicitly misogynist and unavoidably strike audiences as brutal. Desdemona and Othello initially seem to just be having a hot and heavy affair, but he can pull rank at any minute. Kahn plays it as it lays in the script on this issue as well.

Othello, The Moor of Venice, an officer, has won the heart of Desdemona, the white niece of a noblemen. Unbeknownst to him, Othello’s main enemy Iago, his scheming aide-de-camp, who makes public that the couple has wed — “an old black ram/Is tupping your white ewe.” Iago holds secret grudges against Othello and plots to destroy him with a web of lies and insinuations about those closest to him.

Iago dispatches the hapless Roderigo to woo Desdemona and he gets Casio, Othello’s exemplary officer, sloppy drunk to make him look irresponsible. Later he implicates him as Desdemona’s secret lover, as he plays with the jealous mind of Othello, all the while pretending to be his confidant. In many ways the plot devices just frame the darkly poetic meltdowns of the main characters.

On opening night the front scenes moved at a breathless clip, which is smart to a point, but some of the dialogue seemed rushed. But after the key drunk soldiers scene the pace slowed and the Shakespearean pulse that Kahn orchestrates so well, starts beating.

Kahn gives the most room to Forrest McClendon as Othello and J. Hernadez as Iago, and they are performances to revel in. Desdemona, as written, is very sketchy up front and many actors have just chosen to let her appear spacey. Lauren Sowa took a detached route, in Act I, she could have invested more visceral reaction to Othello’s violent outbursts, for instance. Meanwhile, she had wonderful stage chemistry with McClendon and in the touching intimate conversation with her Emelia, her servant (and Iago’s wife) she shows more naturalism and depth. Eleni Delopoulos really calibrates this scene with a relaxed cockney and forceful attitude about the ways of men. Isaiah Ellis’ Roderigo is played as a contemporary romantic fool, than the usual mere clown and this young actor brings much charm to it.

Chance Dean’s Casio seems just a buff Lothario at first, but he unlocks the character in the drunk scene later, completely reveals Casio’s inner turmoil as the disgraced soldier. McClendon rolls out an operatic performance, he’s just as engaging as the cool military operative as he is the volcanic jealous husband. His intensity is matched in very different keys by this Hernadez’s seething Iago. Hernandez gives a full-throated, diabolical, campy and altogether virtuosic performance. A psychological thriller unto itself and beautifully framed by this production.

Smart, simplified production design of a stony Venetian fa├žade by Lisi Stoessel keeps giving because of Maria Shaplin’s subtle, kinetic lighting design. Vickie Esposito’s dramatic and delicate costume design is Venetian castle couture and ruffian military garb of the finest order. And PST’s resident composer Fabian Obispo makes the Othello’s incidental music and sound effects cinematic and dazzling.

Othello is at The Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre through May 19

Later this month, the cast of Othello, will also be performing Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Domenick Scudera, on alternate days. Scudera. who teaches at Ursinus College, is a specialist of the comedies and Kahn the tragedies and histories, Scudera is also a Huffington Post contributor.