By William Shakespeare. Directed by Arin Arbus. Produced by Theater For a New Audience at the Duke on 42nd St. (CLOSED)
I'm pretty sure this is the first production in Critic-O-Meter's brief history to get two A+s and a D+. Othello is one of the most produced Shakespeare plays in America this season and, if reviewers other than Backstage's Andy Propst are to be believed, the current New York production is one of the best you're likely to see. Particularly ecstatic are TheaterMania's David Finkle and the Times' Charles Isherwood, who delivers a review that can only be called "career-making" for director Arin Arbus. It's most likely this review that lead to the show being completely sold out as of 8:30AM yesterday. For his part, Propst finds the show somnambulent until its final third.
(David Finkle) Arin Arbus' production of Othello, being presented by the Theatre for the New Audience at the Duke on 42nd Street, is as near perfect a production of the eternally startling tragedy as a Shakespeare fan would hope to encounter. Or, for that matter, as any lover of old-fashioned blood-stirring melodrama would hope to meet in a dark and shadowy theater. Everything about it -- as it unfolds on Peter Ksander's somber minimalist set -- is bloody good though immaculately stage-blood-less.
The New York Times A+
(Charles Isherwood) The spring theater season this year is enticingly rich, both on Broadway and off. But I suspect it will not bring a Shakespeare production to equal the gripping “Othello” now blazing across the stage of the Duke on 42nd Street Theater, courtesy of Theater for a New Audience. I can say this partly because Shakespeare has unfortunately become a relative rarity on major New York stages, but primarily because this production is so terrific... The director, Arin Arbus, might just be a star in the making, or to put it less glibly — and more realistically — a potentially important artist. The associate artistic director of Theater for a New Audience, she makes an extraordinary Off Broadway debut with this production.
Associated Press A
(Jennifer Farrar) That "green-eyed monster," jealousy, lurks beneath the action and finally explodes in a stunning off-Broadway production of Shakespeare's Othello. Tension and treachery build in equal measure, as the ruthless Iago (played with casual brilliance by Ned Eisenberg) plots against his boss, General Othello, the "noble Moor," given a bravura performance by John Douglas Thompson... Tightly directed by Arin Arbus, the briskly paced production by the Theatre for a New Audience utilizes a plain, thrust stage with just a few quick changes of furniture. Two doors, two balconies and a couple of steps down off the stage comprise Peter Ksander's simple, functional set design... For its powerful performances, this "Othello" should not be missed.
Variety A If it's true that all you really need to put on a great show is two boards and a passion, then Theater for a New Audience proves the dictum with its austere production of "Othello." As helmed by Arin Arbus, Shakespeare's domestic tragedy has been stripped of its stage trappings and presented virtually in the raw. With no fussy sets or costumes to lean on, a brilliant cast finds the freedom to focus on the elements of the play that matter most: the tortured psychology of its characters and the language of the gods who created them to suffer.
The Daily News B+
(Joe Dziemianowicz) The green-eyed monster also rears its ugly (and, in this case, definitely deadly) head in the Theatre for a New Audience's sturdy rendering of "Othello," where a whiff of suspicion leads to a half-dozen deaths... Though the production design is spare, director Arin Arbus shows a keen eye for detail. It seems like Desdemona treasured the beloved handkerchief Othello gave her so much she had the pattern copied for a bedspread. A nice touch, since she's blanketed in love and death by the final fadeout.
You don't find Shakespearean productions more low-con cept than the Theatre for a New Audience's Othello. Performed on a bare stage with simple props and no stars, this solid revival conveys the melodramatic power of the work, especially in the gripping final section.
Village Voice B
(Alexis Soloski) While this absence of interpretation is refreshing and the performances are generally good, it's difficult to ascertain what sparked Arbus's interest in this particular play, which the great critic A.C. Bradley described as "the most painfully exciting and the most terrible" of Shakespeare's tragedies. There's care in the way Arbus shapes the stage pictures and in her direction of the scenes, particularly the soliloquies, but the individual parts—though artful—never quite resolve into an awful, inevitable whole.
(Gregory A. Wilson) This isn't a bad production by any means; there are some nice touches, especially in the scenes involving Desdemona and Emilia, and Shakespeare's quality will almost always shine through if given the opportunity. But as I've said before, Theatre for a New Audience is one of the most consistently excellent companies we have, and this isn't up to its usual standard. In the end, that may be the risk one takes in concentrating so much on the tree of racism that the forest of the play is missed in the process.
Time Out NY C-
(Helen Shaw) For three acts, Thompson radiates the humor, intelligence and decency of pre-fall Othello. He and new bride Desdemona (Juliet Rylance) are great chums, and he laughs off Iago’s earliest slanderous insinuations. This is a general you’d want to have a beer with. But the play demands an earthshaking fall into madness and jealousy, and neither Eisenberg’s broad sly-dog stylings nor Thompson’s palpable sweetness can generate the required thunder. Director Arin Arbus does little to help them. She works on an aggressively simple set from Peter Ksander, who gives the actors a thrust stage and minimal obstacles. The intimacy is right; the blocking is wrong. Arbus ignores those sitting on the sides, freezing her tableaux when they ought to stay fluid.
(Andy Propst) Clocking in at nearly three hours, director Arin Arbus' stuffy staging of Othello only sparks to life during its last 60 minutes, when leading players John Douglas Thompson as Othello and Juliet Rylance as Desdemona let go with Shakespeare's passion and poetry, and the result is astonishing... This Othello may end with a satisfying explosion, but until then it's a less than electrifying experience.
TM A+ 14; NYT A+ 14; AP A 13; VA A 13; TDN B+ 11; NYP B+ 11; VV B 10; CU B- 9; TONY C- 6; BS D+ 5; TOTAL = 106/10 = 10.6 B+