Monday, September 28, 2009



By William Shakespeare. Directed by Peter Sellars. Skirball Center. (CLOSED)

Convention-rattling director Peter Sellars--or "Shockheaded Peter," as CurtainUp's Simon Saltzman memorably dubs him--divides critics again with his modern-dress, high-concept, "post-racial" take on Shakespeare's tragedy. Saltzman leads a small chorus of advocates thrilled by Sellars' stark, stripped-down staging and the performances of leads Philip Seymour Hoffman, John Ortiz, and Jessica Chastain. The praise drops off pretty sharply from there, though: A handful of critics duly admire the production's intentions more than their execution, but the majority alternately mock and deplore both the show's confused ideas and their lugubrious four-hour realization. In the course of our reading, we feel compelled to note that Time Out's crossword nut Adam Feldman teaches us a new vocabulary word ("fulgurant," meaning "dazzling") and that Bloomberg's grouchy John Simon, seldom so offensive as when he's offended, is in rare form.*

*Note: The above summary initially accused John Simon of insulting Lisa Colon-Zayas' weight while failing to mention Hoffman's girth. As a commenter quickly pointed out, Simon indeed calls Hoffman "potbellied."

CurtainUp A-
(Simon Saltzman) Boldly envisioned and provocatively executed...Unmoored (no pun intended) by Sellars from the past, the trappings are minimalist but awesomely high-tech and its characters are a decidedly and purposefully multi-racial mix. While audiences may enjoy and benefit from a handed-out brochure that contains background and commentary by Sellars and Barry Edelstein, who directs The Public Theater's Shakespeare Initiative, the staging speaks for itself...We are meant to hear every word and head mikes on all the actors make this possible, even as stand-alone microphones and cell phones are also used to great and even amusing effect...We are thrust into a world in which the characters who we know traditionally are now seen in the light and images of modern relationships and politics...Other questions surface during the course of the play. Is Iago's marriage to Emilia the way that he has devised to indirectly satisfy his urge to have sex with Othello? Is there really an unspoken but inferred indication of a thing going on between Othello and Cassio?...Sellars certainly brings us more food for thought about a play about which we thought we had all the answers...Four hours in the theater have rarely passed by so swiftly or so thrillingly.

Gothamist B+
(John Del Signore) Chilling...[Hoffman's] commanding performance transcends the cliche notion of Iago as one-dimensional villain, and is charged with a blistering intensity that boils over into rage more frequently than one sees in his film roles. But occasionally all the shouting feels repetitive, and just a little unearned; during the interval one audience member was heard remarking, "They should have changed the name of the play to OthYELLo"...All in all, it's a bracing, well-measured interpretation, and each member of the talented ensemble holds their own alongside the two powerhouse stars...Ultimately, your enjoyment of this Othello largely rests on how enamored you are with Hoffman's prodigious gifts, balanced against your willingness to sit for four hours of Shakespeare. It's Sellars's considerable achievement that the pacing never drags, but with a two-hour-and-fifteen minute first act, you'll definitely want to limit your fluid intake before the show.

Newsday B
(Linda Winer) There is a stripped-down, stark intelligence at work in Peter Sellars' updated Washington rethinking of "Othello," which boasts an unsettling, altogether captivating anti-star turn by Philip Seymour Hoffman as Iago to John Ortiz's slick and confident Moor. Alas, by the time the project has rethought Shakespeare's tragedy and rethought the rethinking, four hours have passed more as a lengthy psycho-political exercise than a full-blown adventure...The willful soul of this eight-actor, multiethnic staging - a coproduction of The Public Theater and Hoffman's base at the LAByrinth theater - challenges the very essence of what we know as a play about racial outsider-ness and the manipulation of power through jealousy...In other words, Sellars tries to solve the inherent problems of "Othello" by making it a play about something else - a rehearsal-hall meditation on mutual culpability in the post-Bush, supposedly post-racial Obama world. If the actors were as fascinating as Hoffman, we would have less time to question the concept.

Theatermania B-
(Dan Balcazo) Peter Sellars makes a number of bold choices...Unfortunately, many of them are not only ineffective, they don't even make coherent sense...[Hoffman] brings an emotional depth to his role, sometimes coming off more as a wounded child rather than an evil villain...Sellars' most egregious script meddling comes with the combining of the roles of Bianca and Montano (with a few lines from the clown thrown in for good measure), played by Saidah Arrika Ekulona...Indeed, the subtexts that various actors within the production attempt to portray often go against the grain of Shakespeare's words...Sellars has paced the show in a slow, deliberate manner, contributing to the production's four-hour running time. Such a strategy rightly places emphasis on the text, and several of the lines and their meanings are clearer here than in other stagings of the play that I've seen. Yet, the slowness of the actors' delivery of the words also has the unfortunate effect of robbing the play of forward momentum.

Talkin' Broadway C+
(Matthew Murray) Director Peter Sellars and a largely astonishing cast, led by Philip Seymour Hoffman and John Ortiz, have stripped the language down to its barest essence and are delivering some of the most natural-sounding Shakespeare I’ve ever heard. Whether this is a good thing is another question entirely...It’s so exciting to hear Shakespeare distilled in this way that there are moments you’re too absorbed in how the lines are being said to pay attention to what they mean. Alas, that’s what Sellars seems to be counting on...The care that’s been taken in emphasizing the play’s vocal component have led to not just uniquely thoughtful line readings, but also turgid pacing and endless pauses that ensure you feel every second of the four-hour running time...What’s far more damaging is that all their succulent speech has nothing whatsoever to do with Sellars’s interpretation, which itself has nothing to do with Othello...His ideas are all over the map.

Variety C
(Marilyn Stasio) 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...Hoffman makes canny use of his unprepossessing appearance, wearing it like a costume to dupe the rubes...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...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.

Backstage C-
(David Sheward) Baffling...This four-hour production is freighted with so much extra baggage, the central power struggle between the Moor and his scheming subordinate Iago is obscured...All this extraneous nonsense could be dismissed if there were a strong lead, but John Ortiz's Othello is more a second lieutenant than a general. He lacks panache and the passion to convince us his Moor is capable of tragic obsession with his wife's imagined infidelity. His hysteria seems forced, and he reaches its height in the middle of this long show, appearing all tuckered out by the climactic strangulation scene. Philip Seymour Hoffman's Iago is the center of the production and a much more complex creation...The women deliver more-consistent work. Jessica Chastain's gentle Desdemona, Liza Colon-Zayas' brooding Emilia, and Saidah Arrika Ekulona's intense Bianca, the composite role, make this seemingly endless slog worth sitting through. Ekulona, who was brilliant in last season's "Ruined," is to be commended for making sense of her mishmash of a part. Would that the director had done the same.

Time Out NY D+
(Adam Feldman) A Pyrrhic victory of directorial sensibility over sense. The production is unmistakably full of ideas, some of them contradictory, half of them interesting, the other half disastrous...Attenuated into four hours, the tragedy progresses as a herky-jerky sequence of screeches and lulls, then sleepwalks to a bloodless anticlimax...Dishonest Iago, played by the fulgurant Philip Seymour Hoffman, is the center of attention throughout, raging and seething like a red-hot volcano—or rather, given his awesomely unflattering costume, like a lime-green sack of potatoes—at what Sellars imagines is his wife’s infidelity. Hoffman too easily overpowers John Ortiz’s recessive Othello and Jessica Chastain’s elegant, brittle Desdemona...Sellars should be commended for trying to bring original thought to Othello; the problem is that the contrarian director—“this counter-caster,” to quote one of Iago’s insults—has done so neither wisely nor too well.

The New York Times D
(Ben Brantley) Exasperatingly misconceived...This production is wrongheaded less in the anarchic tradition of Dadaists making merry than in the reactionary mold of Depression-era MGM retailoring literary classics for mass consumption. Characters who might seem distractingly bigger than life have been shrunk to average proportions, so we can identify with them more fully as creatures of our time and place. Shakespearean titans: they’re just like us! The mighty, exotic general Othello and his diabolical flunky Iago have been stripped of their singularity, whether of greatness of spirit or capacity for evil. They’re ordinary guys here. Othello is a Latino soldier who has risen in the ranks but retains an aura of working-class humility; Iago, a sour schlemiel who has trouble controlling his temper...While retaining much of the original text, Mr. Sellars has also eliminated, conflated and rearranged characters to further his idea of the play as a portrait of life in the United States military in the 21st century...I failed to discern any special connection between this Othello and Iago.

Associated Press D-
(Michael Kuchwara) [Sellars'] imagination outraces the ability of his actors, including the usually eminently watchable Philip Seymour Hoffman, a performer of uncommon intelligence. That means the play, clocking in at a posterior-numbing four hours, is quite an ordeal, despite occasional bursts of inventiveness. It's high-concept time with ideas rather than Shakespeare's language or character ruling the day. But clever can take you only so far...It's chilly, to say the least, but then so is the minimal scenery, with Gregor Holzinger's high-tech designs dominated by banks of television screens including a section that serves as a bed...If a production is going to last four hours, it needs to dazzle with more than a director's novel, idiosyncratic musings...Bring a pillow.

Lighting & Sound America F+
(David Barbour) It's possible to scramble the play's racial politics and still make it work--but not if Othello isn't strongly defined as the other in some fundamental way...If Othello isn't, in some sense, a provocation to the world he inhabits -- because of his race, his pride, or his sexually charged relationship with Desdemona -- if he is just another cog in the military machine, the play has lost its basic underpinnings...Sellars is often criticized for adding irrelevancies to his productions, but here his method is subtractive. In seeking to impose a unified vision on the play, he strips out any distracting bits of color and contradictory emotion. It's not just that he flattens out a great text; he undermines its foundations. But then all the performances are delivered in the same flat-affect style...The most distressing thing about this Othello is that Sellars has abdicated any responsibility for shaping, pacing, and dramatizing this powerful, but slightly unwieldy, tragedy. The scenes all move at the same slow pace, the actors rarely, if ever, vary the tone -- the scenes of yelling seem thoroughly arbitrary -- and the script's basic emotions seem to have been left offstage.

New York Post F
(Elisabeth Vincentelli) Sellars' wretched show is both too much and not enough. In actuality, this supposedly daring Public Theater/Labyrinth Company production is a sheep in wolf's clothing. There's nothing genuinely radical onstage, only a cosmic void free of passion, insight and imagination. Surprisingly, considering some of the talent involved, the most basic level of craft is lacking. The only thing you'll find in abundance is time: The glacially paced show takes four hours to go nowhere...Even the set is preposterous -- dominated by a bed made of TV monitors, so when Othello and Desdemona (Jessica Chastain) roll around on it, it's like they're making out at Best Buy. Worse, the miscast actors are misdirected -- when in doubt, they shout their lines the way "American Idol" contestants fall back on melisma. Ortiz is pallid, Chastain ineffectual, and Ekulona (fantastic as the brothel owner in "Ruined") just glowers. As for Hoffman, his Iago is a socially maladjusted nerd in a tight top.

The Daily News F
(Joe Dziemianowicz) No matter that Oscar champ Philip Seymour Hoffman acts up as the original frenemy, Iago. Or that his longtime pal John Ortiz lays it on thick as Shakespeare's tragically jealous Moor...They're now adrift in this wearying reimagining by Peter Sellars, a director known for reinventing classics. Much of the action, set amid the upper ranks of an unnamed Obama-era government, plays out on a huge bed made up of 45 TV sets flashing ever-changing images. Like American flags. Bloody fingers. Crop circles? Whatever. Casting Oritz, who's of Puerto Rican descent, as Othello, and LeRoy McClain, who's black, as Cassio, is meant to expand the exploration of racism. Ironically, the subject seems practically nonexistent...The staging and acting pack all the oomph of "Melrose Place."

New York F
(Scott Brown) Arid, somnambulant...Despite a surging storm sewer of bold ideations, “reimaginings” and provocations aimed squarely at Bardolatrous purists, Sellars’s Othello has almost nothing intelligible to say. It’s obsessed only with its own “post”-ness. It is “postracial,” in that Othello is no longer a black man in a white world, but a light-skinned, racially indeterminate man in a casually multiracial Venice...This is a piquant enough starting-point, but Ortiz’s Othello, to the extent that he’s consistent at all, appears to be based on David Paterson—physically and constitutionally diminutive, an easily perplexed buffoon...There’s no overarching theatrical sense that Othello commands anyone or anything, nor that his jealousy and madness and insecurity might have epic consequences outside of his Lite-Brite bedroom...Everyone leaves a good three-minute buffer between lines of dialogue. Up that to five for Hoffman, for whom the bemused croak, the long pause, and the sudden roar serve as a slowly rotating lazy susan of lazy acting tricks...[His Iago] seems primarily to covet Othello’s bed—not for the power or the sex it represents, but for the convenient horizontal resting surface it furnishes.

Bloomberg News F-
(John Simon) Some updatings may have their merits but with Peter Sellars, all debts to reason are canceled. I have long denounced his depredations on the theater, but what he has concocted in New York with “Othello”...offends Shakespeare, common sense and decency. Sellars has reduced the cast to seven actors, mostly from LAByrinth...none of whom has the faintest inkling of how to speak verse and most of whom do not even manage anything passing for stage English...We get an Othello who is white and puny, as unheroic as he is unmoving and seen fornicating with Emilia, played by LAByrinth’s short and overweight Liza Colon-Zayas with a pronounced Latino inflection. Cassio, nonsensically, is played by a black actor, LeRoy McClain, of no particular appeal or distinction...Inanities abound.

small>CurtainUp A- 12; Gothamist B+ 11; Newsday B 10; Theatermania B- 9; Talkin' Broadway C+ 8; Variety C 7; Backstage C- 7; TONY D+ 5; The New York Times D 5; Associated Press D- 3; LS&A F+ 2; New York Post F 1; The Daily News F 1; New York F 1; Bloomberg News F- 0; TOTAL: 82/15=5.47 (D+)


Anonymous said...

But he calls Hoffman "potbellied" in the sixth paragraph.

Rob Weinert-Kendt said...

Oops--I re-read that review a few times over before I made the allegation, but I somehow missed that.