nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
September 26, 2009
One thing that can be said about The Public Theater and LAByrinth Theater Company's new joint revival of Othello is that it is not the version you (or anyone else) learned in school. Director Peter Sellars and co-stars Philip Seymour Hoffman and John Ortiz lead a strong company that re-imagines William Shakespeare's classic tragedy for the 21st century, complete with cell phones, ethnic diversity, and echoes of Barack Obama. This production won't be for everyone, which is apparently par for the course with Sellars (this is my first encounter with his controversial work): it takes bold liberties with interpretation, the kinds that will make purists cry foul. But those who keep an open mind—and I urge that you do—will be rewarded with an Othello that, in its own way, is not only clear and compelling, but also one that lays down a solid blueprint for modernist interpreters of Shakespeare to follow for years to come.
The success of this production lies in the way Sellars plays with the story (a synopsis of which can be read here). He combines the roles of Bianca, Montano, and one of the clowns into a single role, Bianca Montano, the Governor of Cyprus with whom Cassio is having a romance; the Duke of Venice is turned into an Obama doppelganger; Iago's wife, Emilia, really is having an affair with Othello (they are briefly shown in bed together); and everyone in a position of power is a person of color. The events of Shakespeare's play remain the same, but Sellars places his own emphasis on them to reflect the modern world and his views on it.
For instance, not only are all the authority figures people of color, they're all camera-ready—at least, more camera-ready than Iago, who represents the sole Caucasian male in this Othello. Compared to his shlumpy, pot-bellied frame, Othello, Cassio, and the Duke all look like they're ready for idolization on the cover of your favorite gossip rag. On top of that, his wife (a Latina, no less) is sleeping with his boss. In this particular context, Sellars makes clearer-than-usual sense of Iago's motives: his only reaction to a world in which he has no place—i.e., no career advancement, no picture perfect marriage—is to destroy it.
Sellars also makes canny use of technology. Iago and Desdemona sleep on a bed made of video monitors (nicely realized by set designer Gregor Holzinger), their every move symbolically watched by all. The first act scene in which Desdemona's father learns that she has eloped is ingeniously played out on a three-way cell phone call. Documents and edicts are delivered and read via Blackberries. And, in the production's biggest (but most successful) gambit, Sellars places body mics on all the actors, a shrewd move that fulfills two functions: the amplification plays into the technological theme, and it allows for more intimate—dare I say, cinematic?—acting that, at least for this Othello, is more appropriate than the traditional model of breast-beating oratory.
With no regard for conventional rhythms and scansion, the cast takes its time with the verse. Yes, one of the results is Othello's much-publicized running time (four hours—for real). But another is a higher-than-usual ratio of clarity. The actors give Shakespeare's language room to breathe, which, in turn, allows the audience to savor and digest everything, never once wondering what's going on. When's the last time you saw any production of Shakespeare that could say that?
The performances are strong across the board. Special mention, of course, goes to Philip Seymour Hoffman, who plays Iago as a man whose sporadic flashes of conscience are immediately shot down by the realization that his voracious appetite for revenge has already taken him past the point of no return. John Ortiz plays Othello as a golden boy who always gets his way, then throws the tantrum to end all tantrums the first time he doesn't (i.e., when he learns of Desdemona's "indiscretion"). He seems a little outmatched by Hoffman, especially in the fateful handkerchief scene and the climactic murder scene, both of which are the only parts of this Othello that could use some of that traditional Shakespearean fire-and-brimstone.
Still, this is a production that accomplishes what it sets out to do. Yes, it's academic, but Sellars shows that isn't automatically a bad thing. His choices are well thought out—nothing here seems arbitrary—and they add up to create a convincing theatrical world. Which is about as ideal a Shakespearean experience as one can ask for. Big kudos to him, The Public, and LAByrinth for pulling this daring production off.