Saturday, February 13, 2016

Review: 'Othello'

Quintessence's riveting all-male Othello strikes at the savage heart of military culture.

Review: 'Othello'


By Jim Rutter


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

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About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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