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September 18, 2009

Shakespeare's Othello with Philip Seymour Hoffman, John Ortiz and Jessica Chastain, directed by Peter Sellars, The Public Theater and Labyrinth Theater Company


... honest Iago ...

This is a wonderfully open Othello, easy to enter, listen to, live with awhile with no sacrifice of Shakespeare's language and meaning.  It's done in generalized modern dress, with TV monitors used for atmospheric slide projections placed center stage like gleaming mosaics.  The actors, sometimes using cell phones, link naturalistic, current English and Shakespeare's language so that one hears Shakespeare's language as ones own.

The cell phones raise a laugh at first but they're no joke, so when, for instance, the Duke of Venice needs to communicate with his military commander, Othello, the interactions are conveyed in a way that's true to Shakespeare's conception of the distances his play covers.  It's part of the openness and breadth that characterizes this production.

Center stage beneath the bright abstractions of the slides is the slanted platform of Othello and Desdemona's bed.  They are intense, physical presences -- we're kept very aware of their bodies throughout, her slim, pale femininity, his dark, muscular masculinity -- and even when they have no part in a scene they're shown entwined, enamored, while other action takes place around them, a visual embodiment of an essential truth of the play about loving -- "too well". Sometimes, in the free form movement of the actors, Iago looks in on them:  yet another reason for jealous Iago to be jealous.

All the characters are often onstage when not specifically part of a scene, which heightens the sense of the flow of nature, and the thrust of cause and effect that drives this story of love, ambition and human frailty towards its tragic conclusion.  Walls, in this remarkable vision of Director Peter Sellars, would seem like artifice.

Philip Seymour Hoffman as Iago is no lean, devilish, sharp dresser in leather slyly dripping venom into the ears of his victims, as Iago is usually pictured.  He's full-faced, beer-bellied and very scruffy -- a beer drinking buddy as we see him with Cassio, and even Othello.  Most remarkable -- thrilling, really, is the way he insinuates and tempts openly and in full voice, a soft-sell with no hint of the secretive about it.  There's no apparent reason for Othello, or Cassio, or Desdemona, or his poor shill Rodrigo, to doubt him -- anyhow, who could doubt anyone with such big blue eyes (is this the first blue-eyed Iago?  certainly with a sweatshirt and baggy pants!).  Still, as time and events move forward, the characters, each in his or her own way, do begin to suspect, and the fascination grows as we seem them not suspecting enough -- thanks to the synergy of their natures and Iago's versatile play with them.

What an interpretation Hoffman has come up with -- to make Iago actually look and act like the "honest Iago" Othello takes him for.  But the audience, with the benefit of foreknowledge, sees in the subtle range of expression in Hoffman's face what's being missed by the characters on stage:  his calculation, smart changes of tack, recognition of opportunity, glee at getting under someone's skin -- above all, his total focus on his goal: bring down Othello.  Playing Iago with such seeming lack of guile, while keeping the audience in contact with the truth about him, underlines the irony.  And it's sure fun to watch!

As the seed of doubt takes hold, John Ortiz as Othello maintains his commander's outer control yet lets you sense in a reddening of his face, a narrowing of his eyes his entry onto the tortuous path Iago has set out for him.  Ortiz makes his background as a naturalistic actor with a detectable New York accent appropriate, and even charming, for the tough outsider Moor, though toward the end he seemed strained to reach the vastness of Othello's anguish.  As Desdemona, Jessica Chastain lets us see beyond the conventional blond ingenue to the talented and even feisty woman Shakespeare has scripted.

There are places where the body language becomes a little too loose-contemporary for the script -- e.g., Desdemona lying down listless in the presence of those she doesn't know well.  But all in all this production's modern dress and techno touches make a welcome bridge between then and now but don't distract from the fact that the play is timeless.

Othello plays at NYU's Skirball Center in NYC's Greenwich Village through October 4.

    Yvonne Korshak

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What a profound pleasure it was to experience this play. The cast did good service to Shakespeare – his words. They were well spoken and crystal clear – not pompously – but the plain speak English in which they were meant. It, the language, was so real that my thoughts went back to the beginning of the 17th century when it was first performed. How excited must the groundling have been that afternoon in the Globe. The contemporary dress and mannerisms, including the cell phone, added to the play – for this served to underscore the timeliness of this great work of art. One troubling thought was who was the model for Iago – Shakespeare must have known some one – some ones, who were amoral – was he ever hurt or did he know someone who was hurt by the prototype Iago?

Yvonne Korshak's thpughtful reviews are always a pleasure to read---even when I disagree! I found the disconnect between Shakespeare's language and the acting style and modernist touches, such as the cell phone, disagreeable. While I thought the actors performed well, I found their more-or less New York speaking accent jarring. I believe that producers should choose actors who physically suggest the characters---this slim, light-sknned Othello did not---nor did the pot-bellied Iago. I didn"t like parts that were added, not written by Shakespeare,the beginning, for example. Generally speaking I do not like modern dress for period plays, and Iago in a turtle neck did not change my mind. I suspect my differing response betrays my age ---which I won't reveal! Or maybe I can't forget seeing Othello with Paul Robeson.

This was a train wreck. LOTS of people left at the intermission. The intermission was 2 hours into the play. To someone not deeply familiar with the play, this presentation violated the "tell me a story" premise that theater goers basically expect. One had to adjust to so many aspects of the production - virtually no scenery, inconsistently appropriate costumes, bright lights shining in the audience's eyes, a microphone transmitter strapped to Desdemona's leg, etc. - that the story was lost. And the seats are very uncomfortable. And by the way, the Skirball Center people will let you come and go during the performance as much as you like, in case you needed further distractions from following Elizabethan English in iambic pentameter, even if it is written brilliantly.

This production will end in October. Fortunately it will be over and hopefully lost to the mists of time. The next time we see that a Peter Sellars production is coming up, we will know to run screaming from the room.

Really glad to have your point of view and so clearly and fully expressed!  I noticed some didn't like the production ... left at the intermission, etc.  There's another commenter who felt a lot like you did and I hope you got to read it.  This was definitely a 'pushing the envelope' way to think about the play and I can sure understand how others might feel about it.  Different strokes ...  But So Good to have multiple view points.  THANKS!!!  Yvonne

Yvonne Korshak

I am commenting long after the fact b/c after seeing another inferior production I was doing a search for ANYONE else who grasped what was going on in this production, which I think has ruined me for all other Othellos, and found you. I suspect that most of this production's critics are poorly versed in Shakespeare (and well versed in jumping on bandwagons)--they seem for the most part to have gotten hung up on the reimagining of plot points, which anyone who has seen much S at all knows to be common practice, and which is in my view well advised in the service of a larger goal. Here, that goal was to flush out the sexism and moral corruption that rules Iago's hopeless world--infects the world of the play--and helps oil the wheels of the machine Iago uses to bring Othello down. And, less obvious/controversial but even more ingenious, the subtext of Iago's existence in opposition to Desdemona--his near-obsession with her as the embodiment of what he can never be, of all the meaning that will remain outside his grasp--just brilliant. (The big lighted platforms I could take or leave.)
What's most important: Both Hoffman and Ortiz revealed the emotional and intellectual lives of their characters with an acuity that I wonder if we will see again. You may get an interesting Iago, or an interesting Othello (interesting FROM THE BEGINNING!--from the meaty but much-steamrolled-over "her father lov'd me" speech). Both at once seems to be an unreasonable expectation.
It's terrible, and destructive to valuable things, that so many people incapable of feeling and thinking their way through a performance so enjoy talking about it.

I was very glad to read your comment and agree with you on most points. For me, as said I didn't feel Ortiz quite conveyed the monumentality of the character though I appreciated his subtlety and, as you say, acuity. I hope you won't give up, though, on seeing their level of accomplishment again -- you never know what next wonderful thing is coming around the bend! Bandwagonism -- oh yes, how frustrating. That's part of why I write my blog -- I feel I can stay independent-minded (and here's hoping I'm not deceiving myself!) I'm really glad you wrote. Thanks a lot, Yvonne

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