Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Harlem Shakespeare Festival / Southwest Shakespeare Company
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule

Ella Loudon and Debra Ann Byrd
Photo Courtesy of Harlem Shakespeare Festival /
Southwest Shakespeare Company
Most theatre purists and historians are well aware that in their original productions, William Shakespeare's plays were performed by casts composed entirely of men because women were not allowed to act. So, it's refreshing to see how the tables are turned when Othello, which focuses on hatred, jealousy and deception, is presented with a cast made up completely of women. Southwest Shakespeare Company's presentation of the Harlem Shakespeare Festival's all-female Othello is a solid, powerful, gender-bending production of one of Shakespeare's greatest tragedies.

The plot of Othello is fairly simple and straightforward. Having been passed over for a promotion, Othello's villainous and jealous ensign Iago decides to plot against him by convincing him that his new wife Desdemona is having an affair. Iago's initial lie spirals out of control with Iago's wife Emilia pulled in, unknowingly, to the deception, which is followed by nonstop rumors, plotting, suspicion and death.

In director Vanessa Morosco's note in the program, she mentions that it wasn't until 50 years after Shakespeare died that women were allowed to act on stage. Actress Debra Ann Byrd, who plays Othello, also mentions that she was inspired in 2000 when she saw Charles Dutton play the part. She dreamt that one day she would also play Othello. Boyd is the founder and artistic director of Harlem Shakespeare Festival, which first staged this 90-minute production in 2015.

Lisa Wolpe's adaptation streamlines the play by eliminating several supporting characters and plot elements, with the thrust of the piece centered entirely on the manipulation and deception of Iago and the feelings of jealousy and revenge of Othello. It works beautifully. Morosco's direction is clear and precise and she makes good use of the Taliesin West space by staging some of the action up on a side balcony and making effective use of the aisles in the seating area.

The cast is all very good and, with the use of some very realistic facial hair, masculine mannerisms, and by speaking in a lower register, you almost entirely forget that the male characters are played by women. Byrd beautifully projects Othello's change in emotions, from joy and happiness at the love he has for his new bride Desdemona, to a man who is filled with rage and unrelenting jealousy, along with enormous despair, suspicious and doubt. Ella Loudon is equally adept at portraying Iago's manipulative mindset that grows deeper and deeper, with lies upon lies and endless deceit that almost feeds upon itself. Byrd and Loudon are quite good with their introspective monologues and lines directed to the audience that depict their inner thoughts, and both create performances that are full of nuance and passion.

Natalie Andrews and Megan Lindsay are very effective as their wives. Andrews is quite convincing in showing Desdemona's confusion when Othello confronts her about her alleged indiscretion, and when she pleads that she is innocent you can't help but feel for her. Iago's wife Emilia is a participant in his plan, and Lindsay beautifully evokes the deep regret at her actions and compliance in the acts once she realizes what she's done. Amy Driesler, Ryan L. Jenkins, Kellyn Masters, and Troi Hall round out the cast and all deliver confident and refined performances.

While the sparse set, which consists only of a platform for Desdemona's bed, isn't that exciting, it does put the focus on the words and not any unnecessary or distracting creative aspects. Gail Cooper-Hecht's costumes are gorgeous, rich and vibrant. Wei Guo provides some live music on cello throughout, though mainly only at the scene changes. It would be nice if the dramatic score were used in some of the more stirring sequences as a way to underscore the drama.

The sad beauty of Othello is in how Shakespeare depicts the horrible aftermath of putting your trust and faith in the wrong person. In a world where "fake news" is a constant phrase, it is a resonating reminder that you have to carefully vet just about everything you hear to ensure its accuracy. Southwest Shakespeare Company's presentation of the Harlem Shakespeare Festival's production of one of Shakespeare's great tragedies makes for a sobering and solid production of this tale of calculated murder and the horrifying results of deception.

Harlem Shakespeare Festival and Southwest Shakespeare Company's Othello, through April 28th, 2019, at Taliesin West, located at 12345 N Taliesin Drive, Scottsdale AZ. Tickets can be purchased at or by calling 480-644-6500.

Adapted by Lisa Wolpe
Director: Vanessa Morosco
Costume Designer: Gail Cooper-Hecht
Live Music by Wei Guo
Fight Choreographer: Rachelle Dart
Stage Manager: Hannah Stewart

Othello: Debra Ann Byrd
Iago: Ella Loudon*
Desdemona: Natalie Andrews
Cassio: Amy Driesler*
Emilia: Megan Lindsay
Bianca: Troi Hall
Montano: Kellyn Masters
Roderigo: Ryan L. Jenkins

*Appearing Courtesy of Actors' Equity Association