Othello -- Theater Review
In recent years, many productions of the Bard's classic have tended to reflect the aftereffects of the O.J. Simpson case. Sellar's modern-dress rendition, according to the multipage "Briefing" handed out to theatergoers as if they were embarking on a graduate-level seminar, is concerned with the postracial Obama age.
Thus, black characters are played by Hispanics and white characters by blacks. The sole white performers are Hoffman and the very Caucasian Jessica Chastain as Desdemona.
Clocking in at more than four hours, this is a leisurely or, to put it more accurately, lethargic "Othello" indeed. It's not so much that it is an uncut version of the play but rather that the running time is unnecessarily expanded by glacially paced line readings and extended bits of business that add little resonance to the proceedings.
In true avant-garde fashion, the stage mostly is bare save for an oversized "bed" consisting of 45 video screens periodically displaying images that ironically comment on the action. Some of the dialogue is delivered via cell phones, and all of it is amplified to an annoying degree.
Sellars has made numerous other changes, dropping several characters and combining three -- Bianca, Montano and the Clown -- into a female military figure who at one point is nearly raped by Cassio.
These revisions would matter less if the production has been staged and acted with any degree of tension, but such is not the case. John Ortiz's Othello is notably lacking in strength, grandeur or anything resembling the noble Moor. Chastain's Desdemona lacks emotional substance, though she's certainly pretty enough to make her husband's jealousy convincing.
The biggest disappointment is Hoffman, who brings few shadings to his Iago other than to periodically bellow his lines. While his performance is not unintelligent, it's simply not gripping enough to make us identify with the character despite his egregious actions. Anyone who saw Christopher Plummer's performance on Broadway years ago know that it's more than possible to create a feeling of complicity between the audience and the character that gives the play even more power.
Needless to say, with a first act running about 2 1/4 hours, more than a few theatergoers took the opportunity to flee during the intermission.
Venue: NYU Skirball Center, New York (Through Oct. 4)
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, John Ortiz, Jessica Chastain, Julian Acosta, Gaius Charles, Liza Colon-Zayas, Saidah Arrika Ekulona, Leroy McClain
Director: Peter Sellars
Scenic designer: Gregor Holzinger
Costume designer: Mimi O'Donnell
Lighting designer: James F. Ingalls
Original music/sound designer: Mark Grey