Thursday, February 26, 2009

Contemporary 'Othello'

By William Shakespeare
Directed by Arin Arbus
Starring Ned Eisenberg, Kate Forbes, Juliet Rylance, John Douglas Thompson

Performances February 14-March 7, 2009
Theatre for a New Audience
The Duke on 42nd Street
229 West 42nd Street

Thompson and Rylance in Othello (photo: Gerry Goodstein)
Among the many aspects of Shakespeare’s genius is his ability to make plotting and characterization that would not pass muster by anyone else seem plausible, even inevitable, through the power of his unsurpassable poetry. Plot holes and outlandish behavior are the order of the day, but when accompanied by the music of the Bard’s words, they are the most natural thing in the world.

So directors should take Shakespeare at his word—literally--
for the play’s the thing. And that is how director Arin Arbus approaches Othello: her no-frills staging, while more respectable than exciting and conscientious rather than relevatory, keeps the tragedy front and center with help from a quartet of persuasive actors.

If there’s a fault in Arbus’ approach, it’s that subtext becomes text—she leans too much on the racist attitudes among the characters. It’s certainly a valid interpretation, but not when done so narrowly. Shakespeare’s genius is such that one can discuss Othello’s meanings and not even mention racism: there’s jealousy, malevolence, innocence, mistrust, foreignness, etc. Of course, with our first black president leading our country, this racial emphasis may have seemed too relevant to ignore. But Shakespeare always remains relevant, whatever the age.

That said, Arbus smartly uses the small off-Broadway Duke Theater to her advantage: there is nary a set in sight, usually just a bare stage, with the occasional chair, table, or the final act‘s bed. This adds to the effect of baring the play’s characters for easy comprehension, and her subtle blocking choices demonstrate a keen understanding of how this story moves inexorably forward to its fatal denouement.

Ned Eisenberg’s Iago is a slippery, charismatic villain whose ability to tie Othello up in knots about his innocent wife’s unfaithfulness is brought out by his soliloquies, which comes across as asides to the audience, which he makes his unwilling accomplice. Kate Forbes plays Iago’s wife, Emelia, with a straightforwardness that makes her especially believable, a shrewd, tough woman also fooled by her dastardly husband.

As Desdemona, Juliet Rylance strongly embodies the innocent young woman who has given her heart and soul to her husband--so much so that she doesn’t realize until too late that her constant interceding for Othello’s lieutenant Cassio is seen by her husband as clear proof as her betrayal.

John Douglas Thompson makes an imposing Othello, purposefully stalking the stage as the feared foreign general--yet, his rage is at so high a level that he can’t modify it to the guttural near-whispers of the final death scene. Also problematic is his over-enunciation, putting a strange emphasis on certain words and phrases that often interrupt Shakespeare’s singular poetic rhythms.

Still, overall, this Othello never sabotages Shakespeare’s genius, nowadays a feat in itself.

originally posted on

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