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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

Othello and
Gutenberg! The Musical!

Othello
Ross Bennett Hurwitz and
Khris Davis

Photo by Shawn May
Quintessence Theatre's Othello is tough. Khris Davis' performance as the title character is imposing—we can see why this general in the Venetian army inspires both loyalty and dread among the men he commands. But we can also see those men going out of their way to prove themselves to Othello and to each other. There's a great sense of camaraderie between the men in director Alexander Burns' rousing staging, but duplicity always hangs in the air. Cassio (Daniel Fredrick) is obsequious to Othello, and that inspires the ambitious Iago (Josh Carpenter) to a rage that goes unchecked. Carpenter is smiling and charming toward his superiors, but when he delivers Iago's soliloquies, he takes chilling pleasure in spitting out the poisonous words. The neurotic Roderigo (Sean Close) trusts in Iago, but doesn't even realize, in one of the cleverest moments in Burns' staging, that Iago is picking his pocket.

The dashing Iago isn't what he seems—and neither are the women of Othello. All of the women in Burns' production are played by men, as they were in Shakespeare's time—but it's not played as a joke. Ross Bennett Hurwitz gives a sensitive, naturalistic performance as a Desdemona who is strong, defiant, devoted to her husband Othello, and bewildered by his jealousy. There's nothing cartoonish about Hurwitz's Desdemona, and by the show's end, the gender change fades in importance. (The two other gender-switching performers are less successful at leaving drag clichés behind.)

This is a sleek, sharp Othello, and that extends to Jane Casanave's costumes. The military men wear double-breasted jackets with brass buttons and gold sleeve braids, while the ruling Duke of Venice (Tim Rinehart) sports an impressive pinstripe suit. Clothes make the man—and apparently, shoes make the woman, for while the men-as-men all go barefoot, the men-as-women all wear pumps. (Proving, I suppose, that they're tougher than they look.)

Speaking of toughness, Ian Rose's fight choreography is great—not just the requisite swordfights, but also an impressive wrestling-style fall executed by Ken Sandberg as a defiant general who takes on Othello.

All in all, this is a vivid, compelling Othello with a cast that does justice to Shakespeare's words and a staging that's full of swagger and menace.

Othello runs through November 4, 2012, and is presented by Quintessence Theatre Group at Sedgwick Theater, 7137 Germantown Ave. Ticket prices are $30, with discounts available for students and seniors, and are available online at www.QuintessenceTheatre.org, or by visiting the box office.


Gutenberg
Steve Pacek and Tony Braithwaite
Gutenberg! The Musical! is a good show about a bad show. The setting is a backers' audition, where two overly optimistic songwriters, Doug and Bud, are performing the new show they've written—and the audience, we're told, is filled with Broadway producers. There are a few roadblocks these guys have to face before they can hit the big time, though. For one thing, the subject of their new musical is Johann Gutenberg, the 15th-century inventor of the printing press and one of the most unlikely heroes a musical has ever had. Then there are the songs Doug and Bud have written, one of which rhymes "Gutenberg" with "Darn tootin' berg." And since Doug and Bud are the only performers at this audition, they'll have to play dozens of characters all by themselves. But even though success seems unlikely, these two dreamers still believe in themselves. "If this show goes to Broadway," Doug tells Bud, "I'm quitting my job at the nursing home."

Scott Brown and Anthony King's show is a barbed love letter to musicals—the show-within-a-show is cheesy and simple-minded in the extreme. The fun is in seeing just how inept Doug and Bud can be, both in their plot (which constructs an alternative history in which Gutenberg deals with characters named "Old Black Narrator," "Beef Fat Trimmer" and "Anti-Semitic Flower Girl") and in songs that exploit every musical cliché imaginable, from a bombastic love ballad to a sing-along with nonsense lyrics.

Gutenberg! is cute, but not nearly as funny as it thinks it is. After about ten minutes, there are very few surprises—we know that the next song will be intentionally bad, and we know that another ridiculous plot twist is just ahead. But Steve Pacek and Tony Braithwaite make the journey worthwhile. Pacek's chipper Doug is a born showman who won't let anything bring him down, while Braithwaite's more serious-minded Bud keeps carefully explaining what's going on ("It's called character development"). Both are terrific singers, and under Tom Quinn's snappy direction neither actor resorts to mugging; the performances are restrained and supportive. Sonny Leo is the eye-rolling piano player; he also contributed the inventive choreography.

Gutenberg! The Musical! runs through November 4, 2012, at Act II Playhouse, 56 East Butler Avenue, Ambler, Pennsylvania. Ticket prices range from $33 to $38, with discounts available for students and groups, and may be purchased by calling the box office at 215-654-0200, online at www.act2.org or in person at the box office.


-- Tim Dunleavy



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