The dashing Iago isn't what he seemsand neither are the women of Othello. All of the women in Burns' production are played by men, as they were in Shakespeare's timebut 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 manand 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 greatnot 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.
Scott Brown and Anthony King's show is a barbed love letter to musicalsthe 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 surpriseswe 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.