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picture - OthelloTheater Review

by Arielle Lipshaw

published February 27, 2009

 

Othello

now playing Off Broadway at the Duke on 42nd Street

through March 7

 

Othello is one of Shakespeare’s most streamlined, intense tragedies. There are no fools, no subplots; the play is simply a story of two men, one driving the other mad with jealousy in the space of three hours. In Theatre for a New Audience’s intimate production at The Duke on 42nd St., director Arin Arbus presents Othello as it was meant to be seen.

 

It would be difficult to imagine an actor better suited to the role of Iago than Ned Eisenberg, and from the first line, he makes it clear that this is Iago’s play. With twitches of his head and glances over his shoulder, he draws the audience in as wittily and deftly as he does Othello. This Iago is a seducer with the gift of telling everyone exactly what they want to hear; he tells Cassio “Reputation is an idle and most false imposition” with just as much sincerity as when he tells Othello, moments later, “he that filches from me my good name, robs me of that which not enriches him, and makes me poor indeed.”

 

Mr. Eisenberg delivers his soliloquies to the audience, his sly smile inviting us to become co-conspirators in the chaos that he catalyzes. His villainy is not without its cause, however. Iago is jealous of Othello, not simply because of his rank, but because of his seeming acceptance by Venetian society. Subtle hints—a slight accent, a headscarf, a muezzin’s call to prayer—seem to indicate that Iago and his wife, Emilia (Kate Forbes), are Muslims. The Venetians keep them at a cautious distance because of their religion. Though Othello is a Moor, he is also clearly a Christian, and thus more easily accepted. Ms. Arbus has given Iago a motive for his villainy, in a manner which is topical without being heavy-handed.

 

John Douglas Thompson is somewhat inconsistent in his portrayal of the title role. Though he has a commanding stage presence (he is at his best in the last scenes, in which he uses both voice and physicality to powerful effect), he loses some of Othello’s nuances. He is, in turns, angry or dejected, with very little in between. Juliet Rylance as Desdemona brings a welcome fire and spunk to her role. In her first scenes especially, it’s clear that this is the Desdemona who, we are told, flirted boldly with Othello before their marriage. She is not a languorous, passive maiden, but a woman who has made the choice to marry for love despite the objections of her father and her entire community, fighting back when attacked either emotionally or physically, which makes her eventual fate all the more heartbreaking.

 

picture - OthelloThough Ms. Arbus gives appropriate weight to the obvious issues raised in this play, of race, religion, and nationality, she has chosen to highlight another contemporary issue, that of domestic violence. On the day I saw the production, every news station and gossip blog was broadcasting the picture of the singer Rihanna’s battered face, after her alleged beating at the hands of her boyfriend. The prominence of that story gives even more weight to a play in which two women, after being terrorized and cowed by their husbands, die at their hands within minutes of each other in the final scene. Ms. Rylance and Ms. Forbes are convincing as women in two stages of abusive relationships; Desdemona still believes she can win back her husband’s love if she only does or says the right thing, while Emilia, after years of mistreatment, has lost all hope and is only trying to survive. One of the play’s most chilling moments is when Iago hisses to Emilia, almost inaudibly, “You are a fool; go to.” It hints at the horrors which are surely going on within that marriage behind closed doors.

 

Physically, the production is bare, but that is as it should be; it is far more satisfying to hear Shakespeare’s words spoken really well on a spare, well-lit stage, than to see bad acting and direction covered up by spectacle. The staging is not always seamless; occasionally actors are blocked from view at important moments, and there seems to be no logic in the use of the two upstage doors, which provide most of the play’s exits and entrances. However, Ms. Arbus, along with voice and text consultant Robert Neff Williams and dramaturg Benjamin Nadler, deserve praise for ensuring that the text was continually delivered, by every actor, clearly, intelligibly, and with the full force of its meaning. 

 

This Othello is being advertised to young audiences and high school groups, who will be fortunate indeed if this production is their first experience with Shakespeare. It is a welcome treat for New York audiences to see such a fine production of a classic text.

 

ariellelipshaw @ stageandcinema.com

 

 
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