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, except 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.
After 20-odd years singing, dancing and acting in dinner theatres, summer stocks and the ever-popular audience participation murder mysteries (try improvising with audiences after they?ve had two hours of open bar), Michael Dale segued his theatrical ambitions into playwriting. The buildings which once housed the 5 Off-Off Broadway plays he penned have all been destroyed or turned into a Starbucks, but his name remains the answer to the trivia question, "Who wrote the official play of Babe Ruth's 100th Birthday?" He served as Artistic Director for The Play's The Thing Theatre Company, helping to bring free live theatre to underserved communities, and dabbled a bit in stage managing and in directing cabaret shows before answering the call (it was an email, actually) to become BroadwayWorld.com's first Chief Theatre Critic. While not attending shows Michael can be seen at Citi Field pleading for the Mets to stop imploding. Likes: Strong book musicals and ambitious new works. Dislikes: Unprepared celebrities making their stage acting debuts by starring on Broadway and weak bullpens. |