Monday, September 28, 2009

'Othello' features Latino lead

Lengthy, high-concept 'Othello' falters off-B'way
By MICHAEL KUCHWARA, Associated Press

NEW YORK — Funny thing about director Peter Sellars' lengthy version of "Othello," now on view at New York University's Skirball Center.

His imagination outraces the ability of his actors, including the usually eminently watchable Philip Seymour Hoffman, a performer of uncommon intelligence.

That means the play, clocking in at a posterior-numbing four hours, is quite an ordeal, despite occasional bursts of inventiveness. It's high-concept time with ideas rather than Shakespeare's language or character ruling the day. But clever can take you only so far.

This is a modern-dress "Othello" with several of the characters in crisp military outfits, while others parade in more ordinary street clothes. They often yap conspiratorially into cell phones or stand in front of microphones as if they were delivering the latest news bulletin at a press conference.

It's chilly, to say the least, but then so is the minimal scenery, with Gregor Holzinger's high-tech designs dominated by banks of television screens including a section that serves as a bed.

The bed gets a workout throughout the evening. It's the playground where Othello, portrayed by John Ortiz, and his wife, Desdemona, a sexy Jessica Chastain, often writhe in various stages of undress while the action swirls around them.

Often to one side stands Iago, Othello's ensign and supposed good friend. Theirs is a bromance gone sour — or worse. And Hoffman's Iago lets you know his intentions the minute he steps on stage. His villain is a petulant screamer from the get-go. Arms folded across his chest, this Iago is more overtly psychotic than usual. And he doesn't change throughout the play.

Hoffman's portrait stands in contrast to Ortiz's surprisingly bland Othello, who doesn't seem to raise much of a ruckus, even when he suspects his wife of infidelity. The actor delivers his lines without much feeling, his low-watt outrage overshadowed by Hoffman's high-decibel rantings.

Chastain's Desdemona looks sensational even if her wrongly accused wife also suffers from a one-note delivery. But then, that sameness is a common affliction of the rest of the cast, too.

Sellars hasn't condensed the play, but he has conflated the characters with eight actors taking on all the roles. And he's given the production a post-racial sheen, celebrating diversity rather than having the Moor stand out because of his blackness. His Othello is Latino rather than black, but three of the other cast members are black, with two more Latino and two white.

Sellars' intentions are adventurous, but the actors let him down and never tap into the play's innate tragedy. If a production is going to last four hours, it needs to dazzle with more than a director's novel, idiosyncratic musings.

The revival is a joint venture of the LAByrinth Theater Company, which is run by Hoffman and Ortiz, and the Public Theater. It runs through Oct. 4. Bring a pillow.

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