In the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theater’s program notes, dramaturg Annalisa Castaldo notes that in Othello, the power of language plays as crucial a role as that of race. From Othello, allegedly rude in speech but prone to measured speeches, to Iago, unraveling his targets with paradoxical wittery, to Desdemona, unable to even speak the word with which she has been falsely accused – all participate in a story of seduction and betrayal quite apart from anything physical. However, in the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theater’s production, the visual provides a fitting supplement to the language without distracting from the play’s emphasis on the potency of words.
As the title character, Forrest McClendon channels an apparent contradiction – the contrast between Othello’s bad self-report (‘Rude am I in my speech, / And little bless'd with the soft phrase of peace’) and his actual eloquence – into an extremely clever character attribute. He gives Othello a unique speaking style, not so much an accent as a particular cadence, distinct from but still complementary to the typical rhythms of Shakespeare’s language. It’s well-suited to McClendon’s powerful delivery and easily conveys Othello’s identity as both an inspiring commander on the field and an inspired storyteller who won a wife with his words. It also distinguishes him aurally: while Othello is eponymously of Venice, he sounds like no other Venetian, just as he looks like no other Venetian. Othello’s appearance is most remarked upon in the play, but McClendon makes it clear that a whole host of factors – racial, cultural, and personal – contribute to setting Othello apart. His speech, his manner, his bearing, even his madness, separate him from the other characters, but McClendon’s Othello is alienated from his fellows, not from humanity.
J Hernandez as Iago, meanwhile, takes nearly the opposite tack. His energetic performance – gamboling all over the stage, invading personal space, snapping off speeches both witty and chilling – ingratiates him with characters and audience both, even as he engineers the downfall of those around with an almost inhuman disregard. Hernandez’s Iago has been passed over for promotion but is never not in control until his schemes have completely crumbled around him. Appropriately, this comes at the hands of the two characters who aren’t completely taken in by his words. Lauren Sowa’s Desdemona is lively and feisty, cheerfully preventing Iago from linguistically gaining the upper hand for perhaps the only time in the play during their banter at the beginning of Act 2. Sowa’s performance deftly portrays a woman who, though sheltered and privileged, nevertheless possesses the passionate and adventurous spirit to elope with Othello and follow him to war. This spirit attracts the loyalty of Emilia (a brilliant performance by Eleni Delopoulos), whose own spirit has clearly been almost extinguished from either her marriage to Iago or some other unfortunate circumstance. She flinches from the merest hint of displeasure from an authority figure, and reaches out to others to comfort (or be comforted) only to withdraw – or, in the case of her husband, to be coldly and viciously shut down. However, Emilia is the only one cognizant of Iago’s cruelty, and once he has caused the death of her only friend, Delopoulos kindles Emilia’s fading spirits into an inferno of righteousness, weaponizing the truth for her courageous last stand in exposing Iago’s and Othello’s murderous deeds.
As an inspiration for the production design, director Carmen Khan utilizes the works of Caravaggio – citing the painter’s use of light and shadow – to produce a Renaissance Italian setting. This setting is reflected most successfully in the costumes by designer Vickie Esposito, beautiful concoctions that echo the 16th and 17th centuries and Caravaggio’s designs in spirit, if not always in period accuracy. Esposito also uses the characters’ dress to bring out subtle reminders of their stations and personalities. While Othello, Cassio, and Iago all wear a similar uniform – a military khaki drab with black accents – Iago’s is simpler and of less expensive fabric, while Othello wears his bracers and other accoutrements of war. The wealthy nobility in the play all appear in flowing robes and gowns, but Desdemona stands out with the intricate bejeweling and detailing on her dresses, sartorial vividness matching personal boldness. By contrast, Lisi Stoessel’s set design is fairly simple, supporting the design aesthetic without overwhelming it. Plaster walls and plain arched entries and windows are suggestive enough of the Mediterranean to pass for both Venice and Cyprus, while the nested arches-within-arches of the side exits hint at shadowy doings and hidden motives.
In some respects, though, one wishes the Caravaggio references were carried further, with more dramatic lighting and vivid colors; the production lacks his signature ultra-clarity even though it is eminently suited to it. This is most evident at the beginning of the play, when the greenish plaster of the backdrop, pale blue- and neutral-shaded costumes, dappled cerulean lighting, and pre-show ‘rain’ sound effects all combine to create a soothing atmosphere with relaxed visuals – hardly the best way to convey the lurking tensions waiting to burst into bloody fruition. (The sound design proves to be one of the production’s weaker elements: the discordant jigging march between acts, though curiously anachronistic, still could have contributed to the mood had it not blasted forth at top volume, and the smart drum rolls heralding various entrances would have been perfectly unremarkable had the characters not persisted in referring to them as “trumpets”.)
However, as the play progresses, the nods Khan does make to her inspiration roll out with pleasing subtlety, as some artful blocking results in scenes with characters positioned as though they had stepped from a Renaissance painting without ever sacrificing the actors’ naturalistic performances. The exception is the very stylized set dressing at the beginning of Act 5, where ensemble members carry out Desdemona’s bed in the manner of pallbearers and ceremoniously arrange its canopy, a chilling (if almost heavy-handed) foreshadowing of the coming climax. Appropriately for a production emphasizing the power of words, there are very few emendations made to the text – the notable targets being the tangential clown scenes at the beginning of Act 3 and the dying words of Desdemona and Emilia. The latter, besides eliminating the plot hole of how a strangled Desdemona even managed to have last words, also resonates with the production’s greater themes, as the violence visited upon these women is so dire as to rob them of their rightful speech.
This respect for the power of language, along with the strong performances by the cast, the healthy support of the production design, and Khan’s balancing hand, ultimately result in a nearly perfect marriage of words and visuals. The Philadelphia Shakespeare Theater makes it clear that the story of Othello and Shakespeare’s words are just as seductive to a modern audience.