Othello & Is Life Worth Living?
by Michael Dale - September 28, 2009
In his lengthy notes discussing the thought process behind his LAByrinth Theater Company/Public Theater mounting of Othello, director Peter Sellars explains how our view of Shakespeare's drama of an outsider Moor put into a position of power in an otherwise white society, must change in an era where Barack Obama can become President of the United States. His is an interracial Othello, with Latino John Ortiz (LAByrinth Theater co-founder) as the Moor, white actor (and longtime LAByrinth associate) Philip Seymour Hoffman as the underling Iago who tries to bring him down and an assortment of white, black and Latinos rounding out the company.
How well this concept may work is a mystery to me, even after sitting through the 4+ hour (one intermission) production, for any interpretation of the text is swallowed up by the combination of the Broadway-size NYU Skirball Center Theater and a collection of clichéd gimmicks that might seem lifted from The Complete Idiot's Guide To Experimental Theatre.
Set designer Gregor Holzinger gives us a bare and black stage, stripped of curtains, that frequently dwarfs the 8-member cast (the text has been edited and characters have been omitted and/or combined), especially when James F. Ingalls' lights are so dim that any attempt to decipher a facial expression (at least from my seat in row K) is a lost cause. At other times the lights are blared full force into the audience's eyes while scenes progress. Amplification, particularly in the first act, is frequently loud and artificial sounding; though sound designer Mark Grey keeps things more natural for most of the second half.
Mimi O'Donnell dresses the company in crisp military garb and stylish contemporary fashion, expect for Hoffman's Iago who sports a loud green polo shirt that makes him looks as if he's ready to scoot out for the pub at any moment. (I'm assuming that costume choice was made after the accompanying production photo was shot.) Early scenes are played with characters communicating via cell phones and, on occasion, an actor sits on an upstage chair, echoing lines into a microphone.
But the main feature of the production is a large bed made out of rows of television screens where Othello and his pert little wife Desdemona (Jessica Chastain) often recline together while others are acting around them.
Unfortunately, and blame for this must be completely placed on the director, none of the acting registers. Hoffman's Iago is a one-note rage with little variation. Ortiz seems to be going for the soft poetry of Shakespeare's text but with the rest of the company performing with a naturalistic (and achingly slow, pause-laden) tone he comes off as overly melodramatic. Chastain, as the wife wrongly accused of infidelity, is bland and passionless. I'm sure the supporting players are far more capable actors than is demonstrated here.
Invention, when interpreting a classic play, is always welcome. However, clarity should always be demanded.
Photo of John Ortiz and Philip Seymour Hoffman by Armin Bardel.
It'll be easy to point out the Mint Theater subscribers in the audience during their positively delightful little bon-bon of a production of Lennox Robinson's quirky 1933 charmer, Is Life Worth Living?; they'll be the ones smirking and guffawing whenever the playwright makes a punch line out of Leo Tolstoy's Heavy Drama, The Power of Darkness. Two seasons ago the Mint, that wonderfully adventurous company that specializes in reviving rarely-seen plays by significant authors, delivered a solid staging of the Russian novelist's early dramatic effort, a melancholy affair praised by one of Robinson's characters for one of its more gruesome plot twists.
Called "an exaggeration" instead of a play by its author, Is Life Worth Living?'s inspired premise is that the owners of an Irish seaside hotel in a sleepy little vacation town have decided to experiment a bit this summer; instead of booking troupes performing light entertainment they employ the services of a Russian theatre company that specializes in the works of Chekhov, Ibsen and Strindberg (with a side-order of Tolstoy). Attending more out of curiosity than a thirst for drama, the townsfolk gradually recognize aspects of their own lives - and the lives of their neighbors - in plays like A Doll's House and Uncle Vanya, filling the salt air with rumors and, for the first time ever, establishing an attempted suicide rate.
While the idea sounds farcical, the evening is more of a gentle comedy with the more extreme events described instead of acted out; letting audience members imagine the level of silliness sweeping the town for themselves. Jonathan Bank directs with the light touch of high comedy, emphasized by Susan Zeeman Rogers' circular drawing room set, whose floral-patterned walls make the space somewhat resemble a wedding cake. Jeff Nellis' lights subtly get into the act by reflecting the mood of the town as the weeks pass, then zips in a zinger to provide one of the night's big laughs.
As the husband and wife stars of the acting troupe, Kevin Kilner and JorDan Baker avoid some of the obvious clichés that go with such characters; Baker's charismatic and wittily tongued Constance and Kilner's passionately intellectual Hector are grounded in a true belief that what they are doing is of great servIce To the souls of their audience members combined with a weariness for their life on the road. Paul O'Brien, as the sweet-natured hotel owner who suddenly turns tyrannical on his wife and Graham Outerbridge, as his lovelorn son who only attracts the object of his affection when he turns from a amiable innocent to a sullen, dark-natured fatalist are two of the major charms of the delightful cast.
Photo of JorDan Baker and Kevin Kilner by Richard Termine.