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Othello

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Othello
Philip Seymour Hoffman and John Ortiz.
Photo by Armin Bardel.

“I am to pray you not to strain my speech to grosser issues nor to larger reach than to suspicion.” This unassuming line, from the supercharged third scene of the third act of Othello, is frequently lost amid the pulsing poetry, passion, and rage that fill one of William Shakespeare’s most potent tragedies. But this sentence, removed from its context, is the golden anchor of all that happens in the Public Theater-LAByrinth Theater Company coproduction of the play that just opened at the Skirball Center at NYU. Director Peter Sellars and a largely astonishing cast, led by Philip Seymour Hoffman and John Ortiz, have stripped the language down to its barest essence and are delivering some of the most natural-sounding Shakespeare I’ve ever heard. Whether this is a good thing is another question entirely.

There is, however, no getting around these performers’ way with dialogue. True, Hoffman has shed none of the cadences and tics he’s displayed in previous plays and films, and you never quite believe he’s playing someone other than himself. But he plows through the typically cipherlike Iago’s vengeful speeches with a fiery and believable brutality. Ortiz’s readings are laid-back but dangerously vibrant, controlled but always giving tiny glimpses of the nuclear explosions beneath the surface, waiting to erupt in violence when Iago convinces him to question the faithfulness of his wife, Desdemona. The actress playing her, Jessica Chastain, is the picture of plaintiveness: Her every utterance identifies her as a woman who never speaks without first thinking through every implication, a contemplativeness that becomes her undoing. LeRoy McClain is a fully businesslike Cassio, whose ironclad baritone disintegrates to reveal waves of soft uncertainty as he’s slowly broken down. Only Julian Acosta’s whiny, halting tenor as Roderigo inserts jarring notes of complaint into this otherwise symphonic blending of sounds.

It’s so exciting to hear Shakespeare distilled in this way that there are moments you’re too absorbed in how the lines are being said to pay attention to what they mean. Alas, that’s what Sellars seems to be counting on.

It’s not just that the actors don’t speak, to borrow from one of The Bard’s other triumphs, “trippingly on the tongue,” though they certainly don’t. The care that’s been taken in emphasizing the play’s vocal component have led to not just uniquely thoughtful line readings, but also turgid pacing and endless pauses that ensure you feel every second of the four-hour running time. (This is with substantial cuts to and rearrangement of the text and only one intermission.) What’s far more damaging is that all their succulent speech has nothing whatsoever to do with Sellars’s interpretation, which itself has nothing to do with Othello.

Othello
John Ortiz and Jessica Chastain.
Photo by Armin Bardel.

In no way the traditional approach the naturalistic line readings invite, Sellars’s production takes place in combination television studio-black hole that’s located on an army base. Gregor Holzinger’s set is bare to the back wall except for a few folding chairs, a sit-down microphone stand, and a “bed” constructed from nearly four dozen working video monitors, and is lit (by James F. Ingalls) like a vampire wedding reception. Mimi O’Donnell’s costumes comprise American formal army dress for the soldiers and clothes that otherwise appropriately befit everyone’s station, from a glam purple cocktail dress for Desdemona to jeans and a polo shirt for Roderigo. The characters sometimes live their woes in the moment, and at other times comment on them over ethereal voiceover, à la Mystery Shakespeare Theatre 1603.

These contrasting elements ensure that the intensely focused, scrupulously conscientious, and utterly level-headed actors always seem to be performing in front of the play instead of within it. Sellars needs crazy to sell crazy - sedate won’t cut it. The closest he gets is rethinking Iago’s wife, Emilia (Liza Colón-Zayas), as a Spalding Gray-meets-Santeria performance artist who’s so removed from her own existence that she can do little more than sit behind that microphone, wax Gothic on her pain, and strew flower petals at her feet.

Otherwise, his ideas are all over the map. Casting Latin-American actors as Othello and Emilia, and an African-American as Cassio, does wonders for upturning and reenergizing the play’s racial component. Playing up Emilia’s previous affair with Othello adds some intriguing additional foundation to the central relationships. Casting the black Gaius Charles as the Duke of Venice (who’s been combined, sort of, with Lodovico), and dressing him in sharp suits and curt ties, is a blatant Barack Obama tribute that neither works nor doesn’t work. And transforming Cassio’s lover, Othello’s governmental predecessor, and the Clown into a composite woman, Bianca Montano (and played, as well as possible, by Saidah Arrika Ekulona), is simply lazy, and strips the play of the scope it needs to convince us of the world-spanning breadth of Othello's jealousy and loss.

Deleting other crucial secondary characters, including Desdemona’s father, Brabantio, and his brother, Gratiano, doesn’t help imbue this Othello with any sense of size, which is disastrous for any play about such all-consuming feelings. It’s problematic enough that only eight performers must attempt to fill the vast Skirball Stage, but forcing them do so in a production built on emptiness is inviting trouble. It may have been inevitable: This production, which kicked off in Austria and Germany in the summer, seems designed to tour, to fit into any size space (if not necessarily well), and to speak to anyone and everyone about the dangers of trusting the wrong people and the wrong aspects of yourself.

But it doesn’t succeed because it is unable to say what it wants to with clear, unambiguous language and visuals. The people involved even seem to be aware of this: This is the first Shakespeare play I’ve seen produced by The Public where ushers shove into incoming audience members’ hands (even before the Playbills) a 16-page, 9-by-12-inch booklet titled “Briefing: Contexts & Commentary,” that explains in excruciating detail all the concepts and images as well as the artistic impulses that inspired them. If you read it cover to cover before the show starts, you’ll unquestionably gain a better grasp on what’s happening onstage. But you shouldn’t have to. If this Othello were truly great, it - like its actors - would speak for itself.


Othello
Through October 4
Skirball Center / NYU, 566 LaGuardia Place at Washington Square South
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix