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Moor Is Less

A revival of Othello at the Public is undone by Liev Schreiber's overpowering Iago. What do women want? Why, John Leguizamo, according to John Leguizamo.

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The Evil Men Do: Keith David and Liev Schreiber in Othello.  

What a chance for timeliness was missed by Doug Hughes's staging of Othello! By reducing the play to domestic drama (which on one level it is), the Public Theater has deprived it of its political and metaphysical half: the war between civilized goodness (Venice, Christianity, order) and barbarous evil (the Turks, treachery, chaos). That may have cut too close to the bone and required a larger, grander production than the impoverished one here. But how sad to see a shatteringly relevant historical and philosophical clash shrunk to a chamber piece of mere personal conflict, and even that poorly executed.

The casting of the principals demands a keen aesthetic sensibility. Whereas it is right to give nearly central importance to Iago, he should not physically dominate Othello, yet the hulking Liev Schreiber as Iago does precisely that. By making Iago smaller and physiognomically more trustworthy, the power of unperspicuous, insidious evil is more graphically highlighted. Othello, though decently acted by Keith David, needs to be of more heroic stature, more purblind nobility, and, eventually, of more pitiable, poetic grandeur than mere competence can summon. An even greater problem is Desdemona, surely the most demanding female role in the Shakespeare canon, a role of feminine and human perfection, neither of which the visually and histrionically ordinary Kate Forbes can approximate.

It is a costly mistake to have a Roderigo (Christopher Evan Welch) more interesting than Cassio (Jay Goede); to turn Lodovico (Dan Snook) into an immature and prissily spoken hunk; to cast an Emilia (Becky Ann Baker) who looks more like Iago's sexless aunt than his jealousy-provoking wife; and to give us a Bianca (Natacha Roi) more desirable than Desdemona.

Schreiber does wring a good deal out of Iago, but much of it is literally and figuratively misdirected. Although lechery for Desdemona may be a minor cause of his intrigues, directing him to clasp, cradle, and fondle her consolingly is socially and dramatically unacceptable. And the final image of Iago -- already reduced to cowering from a mighty blow of Othello's Notung-like sword -- left standing tall above the three corpses of his making is absurd. What's called for is his being dragged off to punishment. For him to start twitching in what looks like remorse as the lights go down is even more preposterous.

John Leguizamo's latest one-man show, Sexaholix . . . A Love Story, is indeed a love story -- that of Leguizamo for himself. You can mine your life as a source of jokes, but let them not be the very ones from your previous shows, forced into greater ridiculousness through hectic exaggeration. And does it not behoove a humorist to see, occasionally, beyond his nose?

Beware the word love scattered about in autobiographical titles or subtitles. The wealthy seldom talk about money; the beloved feel no need to advertise it (there are exceptions, of course, but fewer than you might think). Leguizamo talks about himself and his grandfather, a twisted kind of love; himself and his father, a brutish kind of love (if that); himself and an older woman, who brought out his sexual proficiency; himself and his ex-wife, whom he misogynistically ridicules; himself and his wonderful live-in girlfriend, a boastful love; himself and the two adorable kids she bore him, a slobbering love. What shines through all these is a tender self-love.

The show's mental level is encapsulated in Leguizamo's repeated yelps -- "Ak . . . ak . . . ak," etc., at the audience, which ecstatically echoes in unison, "Ak . . . ak . . . ak," etc. Typical is this exchange between a chum and our hero: "Are you still attached to your mother's dick?" "Don't you ever talk like this about my mother's dick." The real interest in a Leguizamo show lies -- or, rather, jumps about -- in the audience, whose behavior may not quite match that of stampeding soccer fans, howling rock-concertgoers, or born-again tent testifiers, but partakes of all three. Where it does not belong is a theater.

Othello
Staged by Doug Hughes, starring Keith David and Liev Schreiber.
Sexaholix
Starring John Leguizamo.


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