By Jim Rutter
FOR THE INQUIRER
Women in Shakespeare’s day weren’t allowed to perform on stage. In Quintessence’s production of the Bard’s Othello, director Alexander Burns won’t let them play either.
At first glance, it seems an odd choice. The central plot revolves around Iago (Josh Carpenter), an ensign passed over for promotion by his capricious Moorish general Othello (Khris Davis) in favor of pretty-boy academic Cassio (Daniel Fredrick). Othello’s marriage to the fair Desdemona (an excellent Ross Bennett Hurwitz) adds race-baiting and sexual jealousy to this triangular conflict.
Drinking, boasting, argument and scheming punctuate swordfights and brawling (excitingly rendered with whirling blades and clothesline tackles in Ian Rose’s choreography), and although the text doesn’t contain a single scene of actual warfare, Shakespeare filed Othello with more militaristic posturing than any of his history plays.
Using only men in this play is like injecting a bull with steroids. But rather than publicity-seeking gimmick or anachronism for the sake of curiosity, Burn’s choice reminds of A Few Good Men or Apocalypse Now: the casting strips away the thin veneer of civilization in rank and medals to expose the savage heart of military culture.
Over the course of three riveting hours of theatre, Burns leaves in every scheming conversation, every extended interchange between the officers of Othello’s liberating Venetian force and the native Cypriot militia. The ensemble of soldiers swagger through the shoulder, hands on their scabbards like a group of brigands that can’t go a day without unsheathing their swords.
Burns adds his signature stylization, stitching interludes of modern music, song and dancing into the production, the choreography derived mostly from military marches and processionals.
Carpenter’s charm invigorates every scene; one moment pliant and self-deprecating, in the next he clamors with murderous bombast and self-destructive ambition. He’s almost admirable in his villainy; a Nietzschean antihero evoking that philosopher’s understanding that “in peaceful times, the warlike man sets upon himself.”
As for the men playing women? Compared to the soldiers’ swagger, these actors move with a mechanized gait through stilted poses, suffering slaps and stabs, appearing as fragile ornaments and answering each barked command with voices like echo chambers of the men whose designs they follow. Here, these characters reflect Shakespeare’s dictum that men “are all stomachs” and women “but food.” To cast actresses in such a fearsome production would only inflict one more act of abuse upon them.
Othello. Presented until November 4 by Quintessence Theatre Group at The Sedgwick Theater, 7137 Germantown Avenue. Tickets: $10 to $30. Information: 215-240-6055 or quintessencetheatre.org