In the extensive production notes distributed to theatergoers upon entering NYU’s Skirball Center, avant-garde director Peter Sellars poses a fascinating challenge to the audience, to himself, and to the LAByrinth Theater Company: ”Can we make a production of Othello that sheds the trappings of our forebears’ racial hierarchies and assumptions and that addresses the realities and possibilities of the Obama generation in a new century?” Well, yes. Unfortunately, it’s not this production.
This Othello (John Ortiz) is Latino — not, as Othellos usually are, African-American. But the most powerful man in Venice, the Duke (Friday Night Lights’ Gaius Charles, very Obama-esque in his suits and gestures) and at least two other government officials are played by African-American actors. Othello’s innocent new wife, the porcelain-skinned Desdemona (Jessica Chastain), is white, as is his lackey, Iago (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Iago’s wife, Emilia, it should be noted, is Latina (Liza Colón-Zayas).
So this Iago is no mere bigot. It’s more layered — and, in a way, simpler — than that. He hates ”the Moor” because he’s a high-ranking soldier. Because he’s better looking. And because he suspects Othello and Emilia have been, to filch one of Iago’s lines, ”making the beast with two backs.” (Sellars, for his part, definitely believes that Othello and Emilia are doing it.)
”Once Othello is not black, he is no longer a symbol,” writes Sellars in that same essay. But the problem is that in the text, the Moor still sees himself as black: ”For I am black,” he says at one point; Desdemona’s reputation, after Iago spreads rumors of her infidelity, is now ”as black as mine own face.” And everyone else describes him as such (Iago to Desdemona’s dad: ”an old black ram is tupping your ewe”).
Equally problematic is Sellars’ conflation of three characters into one. Ruined’s formidable Ekulona plays Bianca Montano, a combination of Bianca the courtesan, Montano the governor, and a Clown. She’s a soldier, and dressed as such the entire show; Cassio attempts to rape her, yet later she entertains him like a courtesan. So whom did he try to rape? Montano? Bianca? Aren’t they all the same person? And why are they all called ”sir” and ”man”?
Hoffman has the most ease with Shakespeare’s language in this modern-dress production. But there’s nothing two-faced about him. He looks beady-eyed and villainous the entire time — so why does everyone call him ”honest Iago”? (And since Sellars is playing so fast and loose with the text, he could have changed Iago’s ”I have looked upon the world for four times seven years” line — not only because Hoffman doesn’t look 28, but also because he doesn’t act 28.) Ortiz is much less comfortable with Othello’s poetic proliferations, yet his interplay with Hoffman — when Iago first pours ”the pestilence” in Othello’s ear — actually generates a few sparks.
Sellars wanted to make this Othello a ”chamber play,” so he excised minor characters like clowns and messengers (why use people when you can use BlackBerries?). An admirable intention, to be sure, but chamber plays are usually intimate, small, and lithe. Othello clocks in at four hours. It feels like four times seven. D
(Through Oct. 4; tickets: publictheater.org or 212-352-3101)