The most provocative thing about this production: Casting Philip Seymour Hoffman as Iago.
With Peter Sellars at the helm, you’d expect this new treatment of “Othello” to be provocative. After all, the director has worked in theater and opera houses throughout the world, winning acclaim for such avant-garde work as “Nixon in China” and “The Death of Klinghoffer.” But quirky is a long way from innovative, and Sellars misfires here with a fusillade of theatrical effects that, while initially arresting, fail to hit any obvious conceptual target. The most provocative thing about this eccentric production, in fact, proves to be Philip Seymour Hoffman’s offbeat casting as Iago.
When images of Shakespeare’s immortal villain come to mind, they probably don’t include a short, chubby blond guy in baggy pants and a wrinkled shirt. Presenting just such a vision, Hoffman may not seem like a natural to play “honest” Iago, the slippery, satanic villain so skilled at manipulating people he is able to convince Othello that his faithful wife has dishonored him. But Hoffman makes canny use of his unprepossessing appearance, wearing it like a costume to dupe the rubes. When he isn’t called upon to bellow his lines at the top of his voice (one of the production’s more bizarre directorial choices), thesp uses his goofy grin and soft, insinuating voice to chilling effect.
Hoffman also grasps the essence of Iago’s evil power: the man is smarter than everyone else and his keen understanding of human psychology makes him dangerous. The subtle flattery that works on the Duke of Venice (clear, crisp vocals from Gaius Charles) and the appeal to youthful vanity that bamboozles Rodrigo (Julian Acosta, who keeps a nice, tight focus on the silly boy) won’t do for Othello (John Ortiz), whose weak spot is the secret guilt he feels for stealing his bride from her father — a lapse of loyalty that he projects onto his blameless wife.
Ortiz effortlessly conveys Othello’s sweet and trusting nature, along with that vein of human decency that makes him an endearing hero. But that interpretation only scratches the surface of his complex character and unkindly reveals what a stretch this role is for the actor.
Jessica Chastain’s Desdemona is more than just a pretty face. Thesp convincingly shows a young wife’s devotion to her attentive older husband, but she delivers her lines in a dreamy voice that doesn’t say much for the woman’s intelligence. And while the Moor and his bride spend beaucoup time in bed, all their nuzzling and stroking is conducted at a druggy pace that’s more soporific than sensual.
The problem might be their uncomfortable bed — a gigantic, futuristic structure composed of TV screens, none of them tuned to anything of interest. That bed is an eye-catcher, especially when viewed from the top of the house, but nothing projected onto its hard flat surface says anything about the play — other than make us speculate on what the Wooster Group might have done with those TV screens.
Sellars is more successful (and shows more wit) with the many techno-gimmicks supplied, one assumes, by “technical artist” Cath Brittan. Characters are forever grabbing microphones to grandstand in front of the crowd and military councils are conducted by cellphone and via BlackBerry.
But even that coup de theatre collapses from repetition — or when someone grabs a mike to avoid a close personal encounter, as Othello does when he kisses the doomed Desdemona from 20 feet away. Other directorial devices, like casting women in men’s roles and that aforementioned bellowing of lines, are just lame.
None, however, is quite as disconcerting as the “blind casting” (admittedly pioneered by the Public Theater) that results in a pale-skinned Othello enduring racist remarks from characters whose skin tones are considerable darker than his own.
While non-traditional casting can bring new dimension to a character and expand the meaning of a play, willy-nilly casting of a work that deals so specifically with race (as if people of color were not hyper-sensitive to the profound social and political implications of skin-tone variations) is not “color-blind.” It’s a distortion of two realities — the play’s and our own.