Presented by the Public Theater and LAByrinth Theater, at the NYU Skirball Center, through October 4.
Adapting the term problem play to describe Shakespeare’s more ambiguous comedies, as some critics have done, was always a stretch—the term originally referred to nineteenth-century dramas that realistically portray turbulent social issues (think Ibsen)—so, seeing as how problem play is likely the wrong term anyway, I prefer to ignore its roots and use it to refer to any Shakespeare play that feels uncomfortable for modern audiences. After all, The Taming of the Shrew and The Merchant of Venice present just as many problems as All’s Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure, and as for Othello—well, if you can get through Othello without cringing at something, there’s probably something wrong with you.
And yet, there’s an allure to Othello—poetic, evocative writing; intriguing, enigmatic characters—that makes it worth wading through, despite the inevitable snags. The challenge of tackling its problems is part of the fun, so I enjoyed Peter Sellars’s new production of the play, even if I found some of his “solutions” rather perplexing. The acclaimed director manages to neutralize some of the truly pernicious racial elements, but in doing so, he makes the Moor all but inexplicable and kills any sense of classic tragedy. Plus, he creates uncomfortable new problems by merging the characters of Bianca and Montano. The production is interesting, at times compelling, but it lacks dramatic cohesion. It’s odd. I cringed a lot.