… honest Iago …

This is a wonderfully open Othello, easy to enter, listen to, live with awhile with no sacrifice of Shakespeare’s language and meaning.  It’s done in generalized modern dress, with TV monitors used for atmospheric slide projections placed center stage like gleaming mosaics.  The actors, sometimes using cell phones, link naturalistic, current English and Shakespeare’s language so that one hears Shakespeare’s language as ones own.

The cell phones raise a laugh at first but they’re no joke, so when, for instance, the Duke of Venice needs to communicate with his military commander, Othello, the interactions are conveyed in a way that’s true to Shakespeare’s conception of the distances his play covers.  It’s part of the openness and breadth that characterizes this production.

Center stage beneath the bright abstractions of the slides is the slanted platform of Othello and Desdemona’s bed.  They are intense, physical presences — we’re kept very aware of their bodies throughout, her slim, pale femininity, his dark, muscular masculinity — and even when they have no part in a scene they’re shown entwined, enamored, while other action takes place around them, a visual embodiment of an essential truth of the play about loving — “too well”. Sometimes, in the free form movement of the actors, Iago looks in on them:  yet another reason for jealous Iago to be jealous.

All the characters are often onstage when not specifically part of a scene, which heightens the sense of the flow of nature, and the thrust of cause and effect that drives this story of love, ambition and human frailty towards its tragic conclusion.  Walls, in this remarkable vision of Director Peter Sellars, would seem like artifice.

Philip Seymour Hoffman as Iago is no lean, devilish, sharp dresser in leather slyly dripping venom into the ears of his victims, as Iago is usually pictured.  He’s full-faced, beer-bellied and very scruffy — a beer drinking buddy as we see him with Cassio, and even Othello.  Most remarkable — thrilling, really, is the way he insinuates and tempts openly and in full voice, a soft-sell with no hint of the secretive about it.  There’s no apparent reason for Othello, or Cassio, or Desdemona, or his poor shill Rodrigo, to doubt him — anyhow, who could doubt anyone with such big blue eyes (is this the first blue-eyed Iago?  certainly with a sweatshirt and baggy pants!).  Still, as time and events move forward, the characters, each in his or her own way, do begin to suspect, and the fascination grows as we seem them not suspecting enough — thanks to the synergy of their natures and Iago’s versatile play with them.

What an interpretation Hoffman has come up with — to make Iago actually look and act like the “honest Iago” Othello takes him for.  But the audience, with the benefit of foreknowledge, sees in the subtle range of expression in Hoffman’s face what’s being missed by the characters on stage:  his calculation, smart changes of tack, recognition of opportunity, glee at getting under someone’s skin — above all, his total focus on his goal: bring down Othello.  Playing Iago with such seeming lack of guile, while keeping the audience in contact with the truth about him, underlines the irony.  And it’s sure fun to watch!

As the seed of doubt takes hold, John Ortiz as Othello maintains his commander’s outer control yet lets you sense in a reddening of his face, a narrowing of his eyes his entry onto the tortuous path Iago has set out for him.  Ortiz makes his background as a naturalistic actor with a detectable New York accent appropriate, and even charming, for the tough outsider Moor, though toward the end he seemed strained to reach the vastness of Othello’s anguish.  As Desdemona, Jessica Chastain lets us see beyond the conventional blond ingenue to the talented and even feisty woman Shakespeare has scripted.

There are places where the body language becomes a little too loose-contemporary for the script — e.g., Desdemona lying down listless in the presence of those she doesn’t know well.  But all in all this production’s modern dress and techno touches make a welcome bridge between then and now but don’t distract from the fact that the play is timeless.

Othello plays at NYU’s Skirball Center in NYC’s Greenwich Village through October 4.

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