On 42nd Street between 8th and 9th Avenues, there hangs a small marquee with no bright lights like Times Square or flashy colors like Broadway. In simple black and white, it reads: “Othello.” Theatre for a New Audience presents a bold, frank production, directed by Associate Artistic Director Arin Arbus. What the sign lacks in sparkle and pizzazz, the show makes up for in powerful acting and clean aesthetic. Although the production values are not grandiose, the story is clearly expressed, and nothing more is required.
Miranda Hoffman’s costuming is very effective, always accounting for the story. While Othello often dresses sharp yet simple in shirts and jackets, Iago sulks in murky brown. His wife Emilia also incorporates brown into her scarlet and rusty color palette, toning down her look in deference to her mistress. Desdemona is radiant in a light cream raw silk dress, fitted excellently but also modestly, her costuming making her sensual without overt sexiness. In the final scene, Hoffman puts both Othello and Desdemona in white, perhaps signifying they are both victims of the human condition and its frailties. Marcus Doshi’s lighting design cascades over Peter Ksander’s functional set with two doors, a balcony tier, and a large floor space, giving the feeling of a courtyard even during indoor scenes. Doshi also creates a sinister and secretive tone by casting Iago in shadows from the onset. Arbus uses the stage well, but since it is thrust so far into the audience, the action sometimes lacks uniformity and flow.
Ned Eisenberg brings a very Italian Iago to the stage. From his accentuated hand gestures to a slip into vocal accent, Eisenberg plays the stereotypically sleazy Italian, enhancing the language without surpassing it. When he presses Othello to believe what he knows about Venetian women, we trust him as well. Eisenberg lures the audience into his confidence, often playing to the house as a master instructs an apprentice, with one eye on the game and the other making sure he is closely watched. Eisenberg hints at a possible infatuation with Cassio, another interpretation of Iago’s already vague motives. Lucas Hall as Cassio is loyal, steadfast, and an agile drunk. B.H. Harry’s fight direction and Doug Elkin’s choreography is seamless—a splendid scene of drunken disorder turned street fight, brimming with instinctive brutality.
John Douglas Thompson’s Othello is a powerful, intelligent man, courteous and gentlemanly while remaining dominant and scrutinizing. He stands exposed to a harsh world, judging him in his soft love for Desdemona, and then for the jealousy that eats away his heart. Thompson takes the audience through the wringer of emotions upon learning of his wife’s supposed infidelity. He seamlessly moves from joking to serious to despair, concealing nothing from the audience or from the conniving Iago. After he is poisoned against Desdemona, Thompson embodies the animal that everyone presumed Othello to be. The actor falls closer and closer to the stage floor as Othello implodes, showing a man turned uncivilized and disabled by himself.
Desdemona has the most threatening attributes to this patriarchal society: physical beauty mental acuity, and reason. Juliet Rylance embodies these qualities genuinely, with perfect blonde ringlets and a genteel countenance, and the wit to be modest while speaking out among senators. Rylance brings hidden vigor to the role, passion and intelligence wrapped in feminine grace. In her final scene, Thompson enters the bedroom with a taper, casting a dim, spiritual glow. Rylance mistakes his reserved conduct for bedroom shyness, and she is determined to seduce him until he turns on her. Earlier in the play, Othello declares: “Perdition catch my soul/ But I do love thee, and when I love thee not,/ Chaos is come again.” Othello loves Desdemona, but chaos meddles, and he cannot live with her or with what he has become, despite her constant loving devotion.
Emilia is also a smart beautiful woman, but in this production, Kate Forbes shies from the boldness that usually defines her character. Forbes plays Emilia as a demure, skittish and recalcitrant woman. This angle isn’t obvious until Iago slaps her face so hard she trips. Bearing the brunt of his abuse, lines that are commonly delivered in a sassy and flippant tone become bitter and brave whispers to herself. As she prepares Desdemona for bed, her speech of wives’ possible infidelities is not a cheeky speculation or contemplation on her own experiences, but a desire to have some small advantage over her own mate to which she is shackled. Forbes triumphs when she pieces together Iago’s role in the murder, staring him down when he tries to deny it, but Iago’s self-imposed silence defeats all. There is no comfort in this tragedy, only regret, malice, and finality. The stark ending, matched by its spectacular emotional power, gives this production all the star quality it needs.