By Wendy Rosenfield
For the Inquirer
There’s something different about Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre’s Othello, and it’s not because director Carmen Kahn sets the tragedy in outer space, or the jazz age, or even its own era. Visually, this is a by-the-book production, with simple costumes and set design that allude to the Renaissance era. But this production muddies the customary focus on racial issues regarding Othello, and zooms in on Iago’s dark heart and mind.
Of course, the racial slurs remain. Iago calls Othello a “Barbary horse” or an “old black ram.” But these all feel perfunctory. Usually Othello, here played by Forrest McClendon, is the sole representative of a minority group onstage. Kahn shifts this balance by casting Latino J Hernandez as Othello’s right-hand-man and secret nemesis, Iago. Now Iago’s scheming, his desperation to destroy the Venetian court, and Othello in particular, seems to originate not from racism or plain old meanness, but from a sort of outsider envy. This time around, Iago has a clear motive.
The trade-off is that we never get a handle on what makes Othello tick. McClendon delivers a tight, mannered performance, with explosions of temper that erupt rhythmically, rather than with untethered passion. Hernandez’s Iago, however, slides in and out of his machinations with the laser focus and charm of a true sociopath, until the noose begins to tighten and we catch a brief glimpse of the monster within--he doesn’t care where the blood splatters, just so long as it does. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that in his features and small, wiry build, he resembles a young Charles Manson.
There’s a moment when Othello’s wronged wife Desdemona (Lauren Sowa) nervously awaits her husband on what will soon be her deathbed. She jokes with her maid Emilia (Eleni Delopoulos)--who happens to be Iago’s wife--about men’s carelessness with the women who love them. Sowa and Delopoulos breathe easy together, and this break in the action, tender, sad and terribly brief, offers a sidelong peek at a whole other set of victims of the larger cultural oppression: voiceless women who must hope for the best from their husbands, but, certainly in the case of Emilia and Desdemona, receive the worst. Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre’s production asserts that while there’s surely trouble between Othello and Iago, it’s bigger than the both of them.
Playing at: Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre, 2111 Sansom St.. Through Sun., May 18. Tickets: $30-$35. Information: www.PhillyShakespeare.org or 215-496-8001.