Ross Bennett Hurwitz plays Desdemona, and Khris Davis is Othello in the all-male cast now performing “Othello,” Shakespeare’s classic tragedy, through Nov. 4 at the Sedgwick Theater, 7137 Germantown Ave. in Mt. Airy. (Photo by Shawn May)

by Hugh Hunter

The Quintessence Theater Group at Sedgwick kicked off their new season with a spirited interpretation of “Othello,” the 400-year-old Shakespeare classic where the arch villain Iago looms larger than the tragic hero.

Where does all this hatred come from? Iago’s murderous bile is fully formed before the play starts. He is the apotheosis of evil (a “sociopath” in modern-speak) who rejoices in the wickedness of his deceptions. As Iago says, “I am not what I am.”

Josh Carpenter may be too naturally dashing for the role. It was a bit like watching Errol Flynn play “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” Yet Carpenter knew his lines cold, and he brings out Iago’s wonderfully engaging and comical side.

The simple truth is this evil Iago is also perspicacious and horribly funny. He seems to eavesdrop on his own marvelous soliloquies and like a great artist is inspired to innovate as he spins his web.

Director Alexander Burns cites German choreographer Pina Bausch, and you can see her influence. Costume is deliberately spare (Jane Casanave) as the show exalts in the balletic grace inherent within ordinary movement (choreographer, Bob Butryn; fight director, Ian Rose).

The Sedgwick stage is a theater in the round that does not invite developed sets. But Burns turns that into an advantage with dramatic lighting (David A. Sexton) that concentrates your attention on the language itself.

And what glorious language! Only the Bible rivals how much Shakespeare’s words have passed into common speech. In “Othello” we hear versions of “wearing your heart on your sleeve” and “crocodile tears,” for example.

Khris Davis is imposing enough to carry the Othello role. To hear Othello tell it, Desdemona fell in love with his monumental greatness. But shrewd Iago spots his deepest flaw: “The Moor is of a free and open nature that thinks men honest that but seem to be so.”

An all-male cast also plays three female characters, but Ross Bennett Hurwitz’s portrayal of the ethereal Desdemona is the only one that won me over. Even more than Othello, Desdemona can only be honest, and honesty is the food Iago feasts upon.

Shakespeare was late to tragedy, and “Othello” could easily be a comedy if Iago did not succeed so fully. Watching him deceive Cassio (Daniel Fredrick) and dull-witted Roderigo (Sean Close) is classic humor.

Iago is a lot like Prospero in “The Tempest,” a master impresario with the genius and verve to stage an entire world. Yet in the end Iago is genuinely shocked that his perfect crimes are foiled by the outraged honesty of his own wife, Emilia (played by a man, Alexander Harvey).

The all-seeing Iago never saw it coming. Like Othello, he too has a tragic flaw: the hubris of an artist who has the conceit to believe he knows everything and (unlike Prospero) the ultimate smallness of his vision.

The Sedgwick Theater is located at 7137 Germantown Ave. “Othello” will run through Nov. 4. Reservations at 1-877-238-5596.