September 23, 2009

The Many Modern Woes of "Othello"

As my mother used to say, you need to be careful what you ask for.  It was just this past weekend that I was singing the praises of theater companies that provide background information on their productions and wishing that more would do the same.  Well, by the time my friend Jessie and I got to our seats at the NYU Skirball Center, we’d been given enough material for a graduate seminar on the new version of Othello (click here to read the CliffsNotes version in a Sunday New York Times article) which stars Philip Seymour Hoffman as Iago and his longtime buddy John Ortiz as Shakespeare’s tragic Moor.  And yet this production still didn’t make any sense.

The show is a joint-production of The Public Theater and the Labyrinth Theater Company, where Hoffman and Ortiz are co-artistic directors. They brought in the eternal enfant terrible Peter Sellars to direct their Othello. According to the handouts, the trio decided that the play needed an update to reflect the Obama era. They said they wanted to reclaim it from the notion that “blackness is ‘other,’” while emphasizing that “every soul is in line to be saved.” And so Iago isn’t really a villain in this telling of the tale and Othello isn’t the only black guy in town; in fact, over half the cast is black or Hispanic. Part of the fun of seeing Shakespeare for me is seeing how directors and actors reinterpret the text but in this case, they seem to be trying to rewrite it.

At times, Shakespeare’s work is almost unrecognizable. Sellars mashes up characters (the bureaucrat Montano, the courtesan Bianca and the Clown are fused into one female military officer). He creates relationships for others (Othello and Iago’s wife Emilia—here envisioned as a Santeria priestess—have an onstage sexual fling and the young officer Cassio date rapes the now-combined Bianca Montano character).  And he reconceives one role entirely (
Brabantio, Desdemona’s dad and Othello’s reluctant father-in-law, doesn’t even appear on stage but is heard only through a cell phone). All of the characters wear modern dress but while most of the men, including Othello, wear contemporary military uniforms, Iago, who is Othello’s ensign, wears loose-fitting tops and dark baggy pants that keep slipping off Hoffman’s butt.

Works by far-inferior playwrights have been saved for me by the actors performing the piece.  But not this time. Actors don’t need to speak like old BBC announcers to do Shakespeare.  But there is poetry in the Bard’s language that shouldn’t be completely ignored.  And even if Sellars decided to downplay the lyricism, the actors still need to speak clearly enough so that you can understand them.  Merely shouting the lines isn’t enough to get across the points they’re trying to make. 

In movies from "Happiness" to "Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead," Hoffman has displayed a gift for burrowing into a bad guy and emerging with a wholly original and totally fascinating portrayal. So I was eager to see his take on one of the baddest of all baddies.  But the actor is out-of-shape.  He’s now big-bellied and heavy-footed and he doesn't seem comfortable in his body.  He needs to tighten up his stage chops too.  He mumbles too many of his lines and wonders around the stage without the slightest trace of grace.  Ortiz speaks more clearly and moves with more agility but his Othello is so refined and so sensitive that you get the feeling he wouldn’t have strangled Desdemona but would have suggested they take discuss their problems up with someone like Oprah or Dr. Phil. 

Even the scenery let me down.  Set designer Gregor Holzinger spent almost his entire budget on a huge bed consisting of 45 video screens that play distracting images throughout the play. The explanation of his concept included in the reading materials (“The bed as a window projecting into space, into a blurred distance, a baffling parallel reality, abstract half-dreamscapes of a sleepless night”) didn’t help me understand what he was getting at one bit.

I know what I said about my mother’s advice about being careful what you ask for but after sitting through four mind and butt-numbing hours, I  wish I’d seen a more engaging version of Othello


Unknown said...

Right on, Jan. The video bed was so '80s--I kept waiting for it to mean something, until I realized it just meant contemporary--20 years ago. It was so antithetical to all the passion (sex and death) that was supposed to be happening on it, which everyone had to half enact for fear of bruising a hip or chipping a tooth. I also wondered why so many secondary characters were required to stand around doing nothing during major scenes, looking like they'd wandered out on the wrong cue during the high school play and were too mortified to turn back.

jan@broadwayandme said...

Hey Margo. Thanks for reading and even more for commenting. I'm still fuming about this show because Hoffman's name is bringing in folks who may not usually go to the theater and who certainly wouldn't choose "Shakespeare" if they did and now they may be turned off to both, like the twentysomething woman who sat next to me, wriggling in her seat, checking her watch, sighing heavily, casting the evil eye at her date and, finally, simply falling to sleep.