A better title for the show that bowed at Vienna’s Theater Azkent June 14 might be “A Rehearsal for an Out-of-Town Tryout of Peter Sellars’ Reinterpretation of ‘Othello.’ ” Following its Wiener Festwochen debut, the production moves to Bochum, Germany, later this month, and is set to arrive in New York in September, by which point the cast will hopefully have at least learned its lines.
As with most Sellars productions, you can’t tell your players without a program; in this case, that’s a 10-page “diary” provided by Avery T. Willis, who chronicled the reported nine-month rehearsal period.
Willis reveals that Sellars modeled Cassio (LeRoy McClain) after JFK and Brabantio (heard only as an amplified voice on a cell phone) after Jesse Helms. Desdemona (Jessica Chastain) is the Senator’s daughter; Roderigo (Julian Acosta) is a junkie who supplies Iago (Philip Seymour Hoffman) with cocaine; and Emilia (Liza Colon-Zayas) is a practitioner of Santeria and other esoteric arts.
Bianca and Montano are combined to create a woman general (Saidah Arrika Ekulona, recently of “Ruined”). Lodovico and the Doge of Venice (Gaius Charles) are folded together and identified in the program as the President, delivering the closing speech as if at a press conference.
Gratiano no longer exists; Iago is “a scoundrel.” In perhaps the wildest stretch, Othello (John Ortiz) is likened to Colin Powell.
Sellars sees “Othello” as the story of a contemporary dysfunctional family in the upper echelon of an unspecified government, although American imagery is flashed across the 45 television screens that comprise Gregor Holzinger’s set, configured as a giant bed.
Othello loves Desdemona, but had — and probably still has — a sexual relationship with Emilia. Desdemona once had a thing with Cassio, who still loves her but also has a love-hate relationship with Bianca Montano, whom he rapes. Roderigo lusts after Desdemona, and Iago, who wants to love Emilia, publicly states his love for Othello, who publicly states his love for Cassio.
If this sounds like a soap opera, that’s not far off, and fairly consistent with the level of acting. Characters speak in emotionless deadpan, tossing away some of Shakespeare’s greatest quotes. Actors tread on each others lines, and seem uncomfortable with some of Sellars’ gimmicks, like a “comic” four-way cell phone conversation, the aforementioned rape, Iago shooting Emila and in turn being shot by Othello.
By casting blacks, whites and Latinos, Sellars is attempting to make a statement about race; instead, he sucks the soul out of this tragedy of jealousy.
Ekulona’s fiery Bianca Montano, McClain’s boyish-but-brutal Cassio, and Acosta’s jittery sleazebag Roderigo have some excellent moments. But Ortiz is far too lightweight to portray the downfall of a titan, delivering most of his performance as a giggling, ordinary Joe.
As for Hoffman, he spends the majority of the evening with chin on chest and hands in the pockets of his ill-fitting trousers, but simply does not yet know the part. On opening night, he consistently fumbled and restarted lines, made false entrances and spent uncomfortably long periods with his palms tight against his temples as if trying to squeeze out the next line. On several occasions, Hoffman resorted to yelling “Line!” to the offstage prompter, once missing her reply and having to repeat the call.
In its current state, this “Othello” is an embarrassment. With three months before it reaches New York, it can only improve.