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A CurtainUp Review

  With Additional Thoughts by Elyse Sommer

But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve
For daws to peck at: I am not what I am.

Philip Seymor Hoffman as Iago & John Ortiz as Oth
Philip Seymor Hoffman as Iago & John Ortiz as Othello
(Photo: Armin Bardel)
Peter Sellars, or should I say Shockheaded Peter (the image that instantly came to my mind as I caught a glimpse of him standing in the rear of NYU's Skirball Center) is at the helm of this Public Theatre/Labyrinth Theater Company production of William Shakespeare's Othello. Purists may find that their hair is also standing on end as they attend his audaciously contemporary interpretation of the Bard's great tragedy about power and jealousy.

Others, and I include myself, will be largely exhilarated by this boldly envisioned and provocatively executed production. Either side should be conscious of Sellars reverence for the complete text and for the way he addresses its psychosexual subtext. These are brought to the fore with plenty of sound and fury. Othello is no longer The Moor of Venice, but rather a Hispanic general in an unnamed contemporary country (but nevertheless still at war with Turkey). Unmoored (no pun intended) by Sellars from the past, the trappings are minimalist but awesomely high-tech and its characters are a decidedly and purposefully multi-racial mix.

While audiences may enjoy and benefit from a handed-out brochure that contains background and commentary by Sellars and Barry Edelstein, who directs The Public Theater's Shakespeare Initiative, the staging speaks for itself. A formidable display of small square video monitors is configured as a large tilted bed that prominently occupies the center of the wide stage. On the screens are displayed abstract images that change depending on the action upon it. Otherwise our attention is called to the ways and means of communication that are employed by the characters. We are meant to hear every word and head mikes on all the actors make this possible, even as stand-alone microphones and cell phones are also used to great and even amusing effect. This modern way of communication not only works well but essentially informs the entire production.

We are thrust into a world in which the characters who we know traditionally are now seen in the light and images of modern relationships and politics. Notwithstanding the era we now live in which ethnic diversity has placed men and women of color into leadership positions, it is the sexual politics that are at the forefront of this Othello. Before seeing this production, I don't know if I ever gave much thought to the apparently important and on-going intimate relationship Othello has with Iago's wife Emilia. Other questions surface during the course of the play. Is Iago's marriage to Emilia the way that he has devised to indirectly satisfy his urge to have sex with Othello? Is there really an unspoken but inferred indication of a thing going on between Othello and Cassio?

And what about the looks exchanged now between Cassio and Desdemona that hint at a forbidden past? Sellars certainly brings us more food for thought about a play about which we thought we had all the answers. A decision to fuse Bianca, Montano and the clown into one person may dismay some, but it works to bring more complexity and depth to the love/hate relationship that exists between Cassio and Bianca, whom he rapes.

Of all Shakespeare's tragedies, Othello is the one that I have always found to be the most exasperating. Of course, it is to the play's credit that it can rile one up time after time. It used to be that seeing this almost melodramatic dramatic trine catapulted to their doom for no more good reason than a misplaced handkerchief would make me want to scream aloud to Othello, You stupid fool.

Although performed with a marked restraint by John Ortiz, Othello still too easily succumbs to jealousy that "green-eyed monster." A victim of political and amorous intrigue, Othello is also particularly burdened by his concealed insecurities and with a tendency to epileptic fits. That is enough baggage for any actor, but Ortiz does very well by this and without resorting to bellowing and posturing. His Othello is a slow-to-boil and slower to come to his senses military leader who is as blinded by his sudden success and power as he is by the machinations of Iago, his ensign and closest friend.

Costume Designer Mimi O'Donnell has created some spiffy military attire for the enlisted, and I presume that the ugly green sweater worn by Philip Seymour Hoffman throughout the play is intended to clearly identify him as "green-eyed monster." It is to his credit that he transcends the woeful attire with a willfully articulate performance, one that resonates with all devious, duplicitous and Machiavellian designs inherent in the role.

How nice not to have a typically demure or delicate looking Desdemona. Strawberry blonde Jessica Chastain is, nevertheless, quite beguiling as the Senator's daughter's and Othello's compliant wife. There are fine performances by the two other two principal women Liza Colón-Zayas as Iago's wife and Saidah Arrika Ekulona, as Cassio's military dressed mistress. They give the dominating male egos manipulating them cause for concern, and are notable for avoiding classical pretensions.

LeRoy McClain is virile and charismatic as the duped Lieutenant Cassio. Julian Acosta makes a strong impression as the misguided, always lurking-in-the-shadows Roderigo whose misplaced love for Desdemona is compounded by his need for cocaine. When not sitting in bridge chairs, all he characters appear to be constantly lurking about and shadowing each other, rarely leaving the environment created by set designer Gregor Holzinger. The lighting, as designed by James F. Ingalls, is as dramatically exposed as is the text in this wonderfully exciting production. As a long time decrier of amplified sound, I am persuaded to admit that it is not only an essential but an integral component of this production. Four hours in the theater have rarely passed by so swiftly or so thrillingly.

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Othello by William Shakespeare
Directed by Peter Sellars
Cast: Julian Acosta (Roderigo), Gaius Charles (Duke of Venice), Jessica Chastain (Desdemona), Liza Colon-Zayas (Emilia), Saidah Arrika Ekulona (Bianca Montano), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Iago), LeRoy McClain (Cassio),John Ortiz (Othello)
Scenic design by Gregor Holzinger
Costume design by Mimi O'Donnell
Lighting design by James F. Ingalls
Original music and sound design by Mark Grey
Running Time: 4 hours, includes one intermission
LAByrinth Theater Company & the Public Theater at NYU Skirball Center 566 LaGuardia Place (at Washington Square South)
From 9/12/05; opening 9/27/09; closing 10/04/09.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer 10/24 press performance
In our almost thirteen years on line, we've reviewed 9 productions of Othello. The temptation to give this Shakespeare classic new relevance since the election of an African-American president, has already brought us several major new productions. John Douglas Thompson has garnered high praise for his portrayal of the Moor both for Theater for a New Audience and at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachussetts. Now the Public Theater/LABrynth theater collaboration stars John Ortiz as the title character and Phillip Seymour Hoffman as the villainous Iago.

As my very knowledgeable in all things Shakespeare colleague Simon Saltzman says, purists may not find this production as exhilarating as he did. While I'm not a purist and find new interpretations are what keeps Shakespeare's plays ever fascinating, I found myself less enthralled than Simon by Peter Sellars' directorial vision.

While I respect Sellars' reasons for not wanting to sacrifice a single word and thereby making this the longest Othello I can recollect seeing, I felt at least a half hour could have been trimmed, especially since the overall cinematic staging that leaves the stage dark except for spotlighting the actors is hard to take for four hours. And, interesting as the r'aison d'etre given for this production's connection to our current world, I was not persuaded that the conflation of 3 characters into one (Bianca Montana) is such a good idea.

The extensive use of microphones and subtly concealed head mikes certainly insure that not a word is lost, no matter where you sit in the large Skirball theater. The use of those standing mikes and that high-tech bed with its TVscreen headboard that dominates the otherwise bare stage is reminiscent of re-interpretations of the classics by the Wooster group, but not nearly as edgy.

In the past, it's been a toss-up as to whether Othello or Iago make the strongest impression. This is Philip Seymour Hoffman's show even though I can't recall ever seeing such a downright shlumpy looking Iago — more like the beer-bellied guy you'd see gathered at a local sports bar than the complicated, sly villain he is. Yet, Hoffman's Iago is as nasty a piece of work as I've ever seen and for all his ordinary appearance, he dies in with grand Shakespearian flourish, slumping to the floor his eyes wide open in death —as if he were watching a replay of all the evil he's wrought.

And so, while my take on this Othello is not quite the same as my worthy colleague's, see it for yourself. Perhaps like Simon and me, you'll come away enjoying an animated post-show discussion.
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