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Saturday, October 03, 2009


John Ortiz as Othello, Jessica Chastain as Desdemona, and
Philip Seymour Hoffman as Iago in OTHELLO
Photo by Armin Bardel

The LAByrinth production of Othello, (here's the text) directed by Peter Sellars, with Philip Seymour Hoffman as Iago, John Ortiz as Othello and Jessica Chastain as Desdemona, is a feast for students and directors of Shakespeare, but quite skimpy on the delivery of emotion, especially in (what is usually) the cataclysmic conclusion.

There are many strange features in this production, some of which help illuminate the richness of the play, some of which confuse the audience and dissipate the power of the story and some of which actually do both.

Peter Sellars, of course, is best known for opera productions which have a reputation for quirky originality.

The first striking feature of the production is the slow pace at which the actors speak. This allows an audience unused to Shakespearean language to understand and process far more than is ever possible when the actors (as Hamlet suggested) speak their words trippingly on the tongue. Audience members (and actors) are allowed to savor and appreciate the poetry and the words.

For audiences used to the rhythms of modern films, and more interested in the experience than the details, however, this rich but 4 hour long presentation can seem plodding and tedious.

A second feature of the production is that Desdemona's father Brabantio is cut out of the play, characters are combined, and suddenly the characters pull out cell phones and start talking to each other across the room and on microphones. This gets the play off to a shaky start (not to mention the fact that the sound system seemed to be flaky for a while the night I saw the show). People new to the play, and those who know the play by heart are equally able to be confused about who is who and why they say what they say, at the beginning. (Not surprisingly, the appearance of the cell phones provoked some not very supportive laughter from the audience.)

The play is set (mostly) in a military base in Cyprus. This provides a universal, timeless environment in which to enact the tragedy.

However, Sellars does not seem to take this setting seriously. Hoffman, with a pot belly, and casual clothes, never in uniform, is vocally a great Iago, but physically impossible to imagine as a candidate for Othello's next in command. Other characters are in and out of uniform, and the set design does not evoke a military base, except fleetingly.

In most productions, Desdemona is a problem: The relation between Othello and Desdemona (O & D) is vapid and unconvincing. Here, Desdemona is a strong, though naive character. And there is a lot of physical communication between Othello and Desdemona. They kiss a lot, and lie next to each other a lot. This is a big improvement over most productions. Yet it still seems like puppy love. Because of the open set design, the other characters can freely observe Desdemona and Othello making out on a super-modern, stylized electronic bed. But what they see and what we see is not what Iago describes to Brabantio, Desdemona's father:

IAGO: Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
Is topping your white ewe

This -- if taken to be an accurate representation of the O & D affair -- suggests that any glimpses we see of their physical relationship should be torrid passion, not innocent necking.

(If, in Sellars version, the intention is for Iago to be misleading Brabantio about the nature of Othello's affair, and the relation between Desdemona and Othello is intended to be depicted as almost High-Schoolish, then it takes away much of the urgency of the whole play. Note -- Since Brabantio is not in this production at all, I was a little confused at the time these lines were delivered, and it is hard to remember how these lines were used in this production.)

It was Sellars intention to create an Othello for the Obama generation. Sellars seems to consider most productions of Othello as demeaning to blacks in general and Othello in particular. It seems to have been Toni Morrison who changed his mind about the play (
see the video interviews -- click on see all!)

In assessing the treatment of Othello in the play, realize that here is a black man, in white Europe, hailed as a great soldier, loved by a beautiful white woman for his character, having sex with her (and possibly other women), marrying her despite some objection by her father, and commissioned for an important military expedition. This is in a play written more than 400 years ago. How many modern plays, TV shows or movies treat a black character in an interratial sexual/romantic relationship and interratial career, with such importance?

Othello, the man, the general, is not a puppet for a simple anti-black propaganda play; he should be taken seriously by the director, the audience and the world. He is a great man and a terrible killer. And his interratial marriage is at the center of the play. The play is about the reaction of all the characters to Othello, his position, and his beautiful wife.

So I think it is a mistake, even in accentuating other aspects of the play, as Sellars does brilliantly, to minimize the importance of the basic thread. The relation -- the interracial relation -- between Othello and Desdemona should not be minimized. Indeed it should be maximized to the extent of exhibiting a physically provocative -- rather than timid -- passion. (In the "pre-Obama world" a black man would not be shown coupling with a beautiful white woman. The "post-Obama world" should portray these people as they are created in the play.)

Generally speaking, the casting of a Latino as Othello, and a black man as Cassio, and a big black woman as a combination of characters, does support Sellars stated ambition of making the play more about universal issues, and less about a stupid, credulous, murderous black man than is perhaps (he believes) usually the case. Liza Colón-Zayas as Emilia, Iago's wife, excellently carries Sellars' idea of how her character's silence is as important as Iago's deception in deluding Othello, and how her courage in revealing the deception unwinds the plot. (However, casting Philip and Liza as a couple is dubious; they are not convincing as a married couple.)

Indeed Sellars'
essay and video interviews about the production are extremely interesting. He did accomplish what he set out to do. But, as so often happens, it is what he did not do and did not focus on and therefore did not do, that cause the weaknesses in the production.

It is at the end that the play has the greatest and strangest lapses:

1-- The classic line:

OTHELLO: Put out the light, and then put out the light

is not matched with any action that makes sense of the line. Othello is walking in meaningless circles around the bed.

2 -- The stylized electronic bed does not allow or evoke the emotions raised by the lines:

DESDEMONA: Prithee, tonight
Lay on my bed my wedding sheets: remember;

The wedding sheets, which should carry enormous emotional power, are missing from the bed, and can not deliver the message they should carry to Othello (and to the audience).

3 -- And finally, Ortiz simply does not produce the physical or vocal strength necessary to convey the powerful emotions that would illuminate this twisting of Othello from lover to killer and then convey the cosmic remorse that suddenly erupts when he realizes what horror he has committed; how he has been deceived, betrayed and destroyed.

So, all in all, I enjoyed this production and learned much from it, but did not exit from the theater emotionally devastated!

This is only the beginning of the "Othello Project," for Peter Sellars. According to the
notes distributed at the theater, Sellars and Toni Morrison are discussing a prequel to Othello, called "Desdemona," starting from the stories that Othello told Desdemona so that she fell in love with him. And Sellars is planning to return to Othello as well as Toni Morrison's "Desdemona," in part with the idea of developing a film. This project should be exceptionally illuminating to all those who love Shakespeare.

In addition, on Sunday October 4, there will be a free panel discussion about Othello:


"Is It Possible?": Othello in the Age of Obama

Luis Argueta, documentary filmmaker;
Mary Schmidt Campbell, Dean of Tisch School of the Arts;
Majora Carter, founder of Sustainable South Bronx; and
Carmen Peláez, playwright and actress.

Moderated by Dr. Avery T. Willis, who has collaborated with Peter Sellars as an assistant director and dramaturg since 2006.

OTHELLO Sunday Speakers Series


General Admission Lobby opens at 2:15PM

NYU Skirball Center
566 LaGuardia Place & Washington Square South

Here are some interesting links:

WEB VIDEO -- James Earl Jones -- Othello's Testimony:

Kenneth Branagh's version:

Paul Robeson as Othello & Uta Hagen as Desdemona:

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