When it comes to Shakespeare, director Alexander Burns finds elaborate sets and production concepts more than distracting. Given the power of the original language, they’re unnecessary, he says.
It’s a philosophy he’s sticking with as his Quintessence Theater Company prepares to open its third season with Shakespeare’s Othello at Mt. Airy’s Sedgwick Theater on Oct. 13.
A more authentic approach
According to Burns, who founded the classics-centered company with Pamela Reichen in 2009, the “bare-stage” vision is more true to The Bard’s roots.
“Very much following in the Elizabethan tradition where you have actors and their bodies or words that create the entire world of the play,” notes Burns.
In his opinion, productions that use an elaborate set or a specific, hyper-realistic concept “actually end up fighting against the text,” which is meant to convey the whole experience – from battlefields to ocean storms – on its own.
What’s more, the minimalist approach can actually aid audience engagement instead of demanding a suspension of disbelief, he says.
” We put the theatrical event at the center of everything we’re doing,” explains Burns, “which also allows us to expand the way we think about casting.”
This expansion includes not only Quintessence’s use of multi-racial casting – an accurate reflection of the neighborhood’s diversity – but, in the case of Othello, the decision to go back to Shakespeare’s roots with an all-male ensemble.
“Shakespeare writes his women very well, and he over-articulates their gender and their appearance because of the fact that he had male actors,” says Burns.
So when a lovely woman plays the part today, “and everybody on stage keeps talking about how beautiful this woman is,” the expressions seem superfluous. But if men re-appear in roles like Othello’s Desdemona, “it’s actually part of building this illusion for the audience. It becomes much more active and exciting. It takes the audience along on the journey.”
A ‘freight train’ of a tale
The Othello journey is an intense one.
Othello, a dark-skinned Moor, has risen to military power in Venice. He falls fast and hard for the lovely Desdemona, a powerful senator’s daughter, and then devastates his longtime subordinate, Iago, by promoting the fresh-faced Cassio as his new lieutenant.
Embitterd, Iago teams up his wife Emilia to exploit the just-married Othello’s new weakness for their advantage.
“This tragedy, like most of them, takes place in a very short span of time, so it moves very quickly, and has one very linear storyline,” Burns adds. “So it’s pretty much like getting on a freight train, riding at full speed up to its conclusion.”
“What I love in working on these great classics is that 400 years later, we’re still struggling with most of the same things as human beings,” he continues.
A multi-themed play
While this particular production doesn’t “over-articulate” the themes of racial and religious tension, they’re “very present in the play.”
Burns is particularly interested in the theme of women’s roles.
” [Shakespeare] goes after the nature of women in society as mother, as leader, as ambassador and also as sexual object and victim. It’s the same construct that we’re still struggling with addressing in America today,” he says.
Burns would argue that the male casting, far from blunting a female perspective, makes that exploration shine even stronger.
“We’ve been asking the audience to take on the concept of gender as a theatrical device, and not a real thing that’s being demonstrated by men and women, which to me also heightens and brings out the power of the language,” he says.
Where the language is given such sway, it strengthens the characters’ perspectives. “What’s amazing is when you empower [the play’s women] through what they’re saying, you present quite a spectacular debate about the struggle to integrate women into what is inherently still a very male-dominated society,” Burns notes.
Don’t expect a downer
But folks expecting a solemn, intellectually-driven evening should know that the performance also promises to be a highly “athletic” one, full of muscular swordfights and violence staged by Philadelphia stage combat maven Ian Rose.
“I think that people who expect to come into a serious, reverent, somber Shakespeare tragedy will be surprised over how joyous it is, and then how heartbreaking it is at the end,” Burns predicts. “I have a feeling that anyone who takes the risk of coming and spending an evening with this Othello will go away pretty overwhelmed by it in all the right ways.”
Quintessence Theater Company’s Othello is running at the Sedgwick Theater from Oct. 13 through Nov. 4. Tickets range from $15-$30 (with $10 student rush tickets available at the box office one hour prior to performances, subject to availability). For more information or to order tickets, visit the Quintessence website or call 1-877-238-5596.