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.
Sellars sets his Othello in the present day with a strikingly diverse cast, which immediately changes the play’s racial dynamic. It also requires a lot of modernizing tweaks, which vary in effectiveness. The first act, for example, is conducted almost entirely over cell phone—Rodrigo practically prank-calling Desdemona’s father to make lewd insinuations about her, the nobles of Venice convening via conference call to discuss the Turkish invasion—which is hard to follow at times because no one is speaking face-to-face. But the phone shenanigans do yield one great scene: Othello receives the call from the Duke inquiring about his relationship with Desdemona while he’s in bed with her, and while everyone else is speaking of Desdemona or for her, he speaks directly to her as he describes their love affair, the phone at his ear almost forgotten. It’s a beautiful, intimate moment, and the actors, John Ortiz and Jessica Chastain, create a palpable bond between the pair, which makes it even more upsetting when that bond inevitably explodes.
Unfortunately, despite Ortiz’s best efforts, Othello’s rapid descent from affectionate, respectful husband to jealous, violent monster never makes much sense in this production. The only way I have ever been able to understand Othello is to think of him living his entire life as a second-class citizen and internalizing much of the hatred directed at him; he is quick to believe that Desdemona does not truly love him because, deep down, he doesn’t believe himself worthy of love. But in this Othello, populated mostly by black and Latino actors, that interpretation doesn’t make much sense. Sellars considers the removal of the race angle encouraging. In the program notes, he writes: “The usual racial profiling or objectification of his [Othello’s] being is no longer possible. We have to look at him and listen to him and respond to him as human.” So, OK, fair enough. But now we’re left with an Othello so volatile and paranoid that Iago’s scheming is practically beside the point. If it hadn’t been the silliness with the handkerchief to tip him into a murderous rage, it would have been something else.
As for Iago, actor Philip Seymour Hoffman avoids the common (and effective) interpretation of the man as a cold-blooded puppet-master in favor of a more emotional portrayal, messy but mesmerizing. His Iago is genuinely hurt and humiliated by the belief that his wife, Emilia (Liza Colón-Zayas), is having an affair with Othello—and that belief turns out to be correct. (The scene in which Othello interrogates Emilia about Desdemona’s whereabouts is played as pillow talk, which makes him a contemptible hypocrite with absolutely no self-awareness, as if we needed another reason to hate him.) The legitimacy of Iago’s suspicions gives some pathos to his actions, making him another Othello, another vengeful husband, but it makes Othello’s blind trust of Iago even more incomprehensible (not to mention stupid).
Also bewildering is the decision to merge the roles of Bianca, Cassio’s mistress, and Montano, the governor of Cypress, whom he hurts in a drunken brawl—in this production a shocking, unambiguous rape. Saidah Arrika Ekulona does her best with the part, but she can’t make sense of the contradictory actions of “Bianca Montano,” particularly given her stated desire to make the woman strong, independent, and ambitious. (Yeah, that is definitely not happening. The notes on the character are interesting, but we’re still talking about a woman intent on being reunited with her cruel, disrespectful rapist.) Furthermore, considering that Othello’s dismissal of Cassio for rape was hardly an overreaction, Desdemona’s determination to see him reinstated is bizarre, especially since she seems to have little fondness for the man, whom Leroy McClain plays as a smarmy lech.
With Desdemona, Emilia, and Bianca Montano all trying to bolster relationships with abusive men, a tangled new theme rises to the forefront in the play. Desdemona and Emilia are, of course, both killed their husbands (though Desdemona’s murder is seen through an unsettlingly romantic lens), and Bianca ends up with Cassio, though perhaps only because he has been badly wounded and needs someone to care for him. It’s deeply disturbing—maybe even more so because Chastain, Colón-Zayas, and Ekulona play their characters with strength and resolve—and I don’t think the production really deals with the fact that love, or some twisted semblance of it, has inspired these women to make very poor decisions. (To be fair, I’m not sure it can deal with that dysfunction, given that terrible ideas about domestic violence and love are pretty much written into the play, the whole “tragedy” of which is that Othello is deceived into killing Desdemona, as if it wouldn’t be just as bad for him to kill her if she really was having an affair with Cassio.)
It’s a fascinating production from an intellectual standpoint, but as drama, I don’t think it succeeds. Individual scenes might work—for example, the chummy rapport between Othello and Iago, even as they secretly betray each other, is riveting, and Desdemona’s haunting, fatalistic “willow” song always gets to me—but collectively, it doesn’t hold together. Moreover, it feels sordid rather than tragic, like a dark, ugly soap opera. Sellars finds an interesting spin on the play, but it’s as intractably problematic as ever.