Thursday, December 25, 2014

Review: Othello

Othello, reviewed by Wendy Rosenfield, produced by Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre, directed by Carmen Kahn, featuring Forrest McClendon, J Hernandez, Lauren Sowa and Eleni Delopolous

Review: Othello

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.

About this blog
Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer. She also is a contributing writer for Variety and American Theatre magazine. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of four books about four playwrights (Rabe, McNally, Miller, Albee), and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). Her 'weekend' job as a travel writer provides adventure: dogsledding in the Yukon, ziplining in Belize, walking coast-to-coast across England, and cowboying in the Australian Outback.


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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