October 3rd, 2009

La Loge

The Moor of Peter Sellars

Othello is an uncomfortable play. There's a noble, physical, easily duped black guy and a young white woman who clings to him even when he insults and strikes her and a white guy who spends a considerable amount of time and energy bringing out the absolute worst in everyone around him and his wife, who not only puts up with his badmouthing her every chance he gets, but also steals her mistress's handkerchief for him, even though she suspects he's up to no good. Everyone behaves badly at one point or another--except Desdemona, whose innocence can occasionally look a lot like stupidity.

Also, Iago can run away with the show, if he's not restrained. He gets to talk more than almost anybody else in Shakespeare, barring Hamlet.

Which is exactly what Philip Seymour Hoffman did in Peter Sellars's production of Othello for the Public Theatre at the Skirball Center at NYU. Not because he was trying to and certainly not because he chewed the scenery (if he could have found anything to chew). His focus was inhumanly intense, his suppressed rage palpable, his line readings tending towards the low and muttered, except when he unleashed a real lyric line. Nobody else on the stage could really stand up to him, certainly not John Ortiz, whose Moor seemed bewildered by his fame and responsibilities.

Some of this was caused, undoubtedly, by the fact that the digital lighting program went on the fritz during the first half, resulting in the lights flashing on and off pretty much at random, and often off completely, when they turned on the rehearsal lights, which shone directly into the audience's eyes. And at the talk-back afterwards, Sellars said the dynamic between the two men changed every night, tipping back and forth between Iago nursing a thing for Othello and hating him utterly. Thursday night, it was kind of both at once, which was really very interesting, and completely in the text.

The most interesting thing about the production, however, was the fact that the only white actors in the company were Desdemona, Rodrigo, and Iago. Everyone else was black--a lot blacker than Ortiz, in fact, who was hardly darker than Desdamona. Sellars also cast Montano, the governor of Cyprus, as a woman and conflated her with the whore Bianca, which added a level of incoherence to the proceedings (Cassio having an affair with the Governor of Cyprus? And he tries to date-rape her when he's drunk? And calls her a whore? And Othello's the only one who is mad at him and can recall him from banishment?). The effect of all this (other than making mice's feet of the plot) was to sideline the race issue, and make this much more a play about women and their relationships to men.

This is definitely in the text. I can't think of another play in which the women get to speak so directly and honestly about how much power their husbands have over them, or how they are treated and how they feel about it. But Sellars confuses the issue by assuming that Othello and Emilia have indeed been having the affair Iago accuses them of (the big bed made of multiple TV screens (don't ask) that is the only set gets a lot of hard use in this production). And why, oh, why, make Emilia a Santeria?

In the large and closely printed notes that came with the program, Sellars says that the production has grown out of discussions with Toni Morrison, who is writing a play called Desdemona. Which is fine. Except that what's come of it is a production full of nacky notions and ideas that don't finally make dramatic sense.

Did I hate it? No. I wasn't even tempted to walk out (unlike maybe a third of the audience, including Susan Straub, who was there with a friend). I certainly didn't dislike it as much as Ben Brantley, who reviewed it for the New York Times. But I do agree with one thing he says: "But by that time, you’ve started thinking that Mr. Sellars has written his own play about love and war, and that Shakespeare’s words mostly just get in the way."

Which can be said of many of Mr. Sellars's productions. Still, I'll always go to them, no matter how wiggy. I appreciate his audacity. And he's an interesting guy who is doing his best to grapple with the classics and find ways of bringing them into the 21st Century.