A post-racial Othello for the age of Obama: What a fascinating idea. But what, exactly, is that idea, in theory or practice? What is it beyond a slogan, an idea for an idea TBD? Director Peter Sellars doesn’t have much of an answer for you, though he spends four fairly excruciating hours searching for one in his arid, somnambulant new production for the Public. On a stripped stage dominated by a single, massive setpiece—a bed built from TV screens aglow with what appear to be becalming home-office screensavers—Othello (John Ortiz), Iago (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and Desdemona (Jessica Chastain) wander through Shakespeare’s most operatic love triangle in a passionless, saturnine trance. Occasionally, some spontaneous Joe Wilson-style yelling erupts—as if the actors are trying to wake themselves up—but there’s no disguising the obvious: This show mumbles.
Perhaps that’s because, 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. (The Duke, played by Gauis Charles, is the most Obaman figure on stage: righteous, chill, more than a bit detached.) 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. Othello as incompent executive: Is Sellars planting a “post-imperial” flag to mark our current AfPak quagmire? Maybe, but it sinks into the muck, along with everything else. 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. The Turkish fleet is drowned offstage, and after that, nothing much feels at stake. Before last Wednesday night, I’d never spent so much time wondering about the poor old Turkish fleet: Did any ships survive? Did they get back to Istanbul okay?
There’s plenty of time to reflect: 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 is, in theory, the draw here. It’s easy to imagine the role energizing him, and him it. But this production has poured lead into his veins. Dressed in a tremendously depressing green polo (are we “post-costume design,” too?), gut protruding like unexploded ordnance, he is more immanent object than prime mover. But above all, he is sleepy. He 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.
Much will be made of Sellars’s biggest dramaturgical gambles: His combination of the clown Montano with the whore Bianca into a new character whose function is 100 percent obscure; his showy use of smartphones to solve Elizabethan “messenger” problems; his chanting, cheating Emilia (Liza Colon-Zayas), with her fussy upstage Santeria paraphernalia and her newly literalized affair with the Moor. Volumes could and probably have been written on these, by Sellars, in stacks of Mead notebooks. They just don’t amount to theater. Not one of these potentially incendiary concepts made it out of his brain alive. And that’s a small tragedy.