nytheatre.com review by Megin Jimenez
February 20, 2009
Theatre for a New Audience brings an intense, psychologically astute production of Othello to the stage. Director Arin Arbus shows that a direct and simple staging of the tragedy as written can bring out the complex interplay of class, sexuality, and race in the remarkably enduring drama as much as any contemporary re-envisioning. The Venice of 1570 in this production does not feel all that distant—the undercurrent of double standards coursing through the educated and cosmopolitan ruling class reminds us how deeply rooted Western concepts of race and gender run, and how subtly these assumptions build to monstrous effect. A minimalist set and warm, focused lighting design (by Marcus Doshi) keeps the attention on the outstanding company.
Ned Eisenberg creates an Iago who manipulates the words no one will say out loud. Eisenberg knows where to place the accent: the coarser picture of man comes through his language, the bestial; while Iago himself manages to remain untouched by these images. From the opening scene, any trust Othello has gained from years of leadership and accomplishment is erased by Iago's imagery—"an old black ram tupping your white ewe," the "beast with two backs." He is not the typical villain rubbing his hands. This Iago plays it straight, a kind of quiet everyman with horrifying secret thoughts. And despite the utter ruthlessness of the character, Eisenberg also establishes complicity with the audience during the first half with snarky charm. We even laugh sometimes; it's all so easy.
Juliet Rylance is a stunning Desdemona. While she delivers the fresh-faced virtue necessary to the part, she also imbues the character with maturity and a radiant faith in her love. She is a woman, embracing the role of wife in its best definition, and not simply a girl wooed by Othello's exotic tales. Kate Forbes also merits great recognition for her portrayal of Emilia. Her last speech, the sacrifice she makes to speak it, carries our own desperate yearning for the truth in face of the inexorability of tragedy set in motion. The scene shared by Desdemona and Emilia in the bedchamber, in the hands of these two actors, stands out as a luminous, fragile moment in the otherwise male-dominated world of brawling, warring, and whoring.
John Douglas Thompson's Othello cracks quickly. He descends into dramatic, violent anger at Iago's first poisonous hints. The interpretation points to Othello's own internalization of the stereotypes he has battled, although some of the character's subtlety of expression is lost in the storm. The sensual relationship established between the newly married couple also creates a layer that has Othello battling with the idea of his wife's sexuality. Thompson's approach contrasts with the other players; he is nearly operatic with declamations and pounding gestures, although in some ways this could also be read as a manifestation of Othello's foreignness and different mode of expression.
Ultimately, beyond the nuanced handling of the societal forces at large, the production manages a fine depiction of an individual striving to live out a story of his own determination, worn away by the insidious projections of fellow men.