NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - William Shakespeare’s “Othello” has worked perfectly well onstage for more than 400 years, so it’s a puzzlement as to why director Peter Sellars felt such the need to mess with it in his new production starring Philip Seymour Hoffman.
The answer, of course, is that the controversial theater/opera director always has imposed his own authorial ideas into his stagings, with results that have ranged from the sublime to, in this case, the ridiculous.
In recent years, many productions of the Bard’s classic have tended to reflect the aftereffects of the O.J. Simpson case. Sellars’ modern-dress rendition, according to the multipage “Briefing” handed out to theatergoers at the NYU Skirball Center as if they were embarking on a graduate-level seminar, is concerned with the postracial Obama age.
Thus, black characters are played by Hispanics and white characters by blacks. The sole white performers are Hoffman and the very Caucasian Jessica Chastain as Desdemona.
Clocking in at more than four hours, this is a leisurely or, to put it more accurately, lethargic “Othello” indeed. It’s not so much that it is an uncut version of the play but rather that the running time is unnecessarily expanded by glacially paced line readings and extended bits of business that add little resonance to the proceedings.
In true avant-garde fashion, the stage mostly is bare save for an oversized “bed” consisting of 45 video screens periodically displaying images that ironically comment on the action. Some of the dialogue is delivered via cell phones, and all of it is amplified to an annoying degree.
Sellars has made numerous other changes, dropping several characters and combining three — Bianca, Montano and the Clown — into a female military figure who at one point is nearly raped by Cassio.
These revisions would matter less if the production has been staged and acted with any degree of tension, but such is not the case. John Ortiz’s Othello is notably lacking in strength, grandeur or anything resembling the noble Moor. Chastain’s Desdemona lacks emotional substance, though she’s certainly pretty enough to make her husband’s jealousy convincing.
The biggest disappointment is Hoffman, who brings few shadings to his Iago other than to periodically bellow his lines. While his performance is not unintelligent, it’s simply not gripping enough to make us identify with the character despite his egregious actions. Anyone who saw Christopher Plummer’s performance on Broadway years ago know that it’s more than possible to create a feeling of complicity between the audience and the character that gives the play even more power.
Needless to say, with a first act running about 2 1/4 hours, more than a few theatergoers took the opportunity to flee during the intermission. The play runs through October 4.
Editing by DGoodman at Reuters