John Ortiz and Philip Seymour Hoffman deliver strong performances in Peter Sellars’ otherwise ineffective staging of Shakespeare’s beloved play.

Philip Seymour Hoffman and John Ortiz in Othello
(© Armin Bardel)
Philip Seymour Hoffman and John Ortiz in Othello
(© Armin Bardel)

Peter Sellars makes a number of bold choices in his production of Othello, currently being presented by The Public Theater at the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts. Unfortunately, many of them are not only ineffective, they don’t even make coherent sense.

Interestingly, what should be one of Sellars’ more controversial decisions is actually the least damaging to the play — which is that Othello is not being played by a black actor, but by the Latino John Ortiz. With a cast that includes a mixture of black, Latino, and white performers, racial tensions are not the focus of the production. Mimi O’Donnell’s modern-dress costumes firmly root the staging in the present, and while the text’s allusions to race are still present, they play differently. For example, it’s now an African-American actor who says the line that Othello is “far more fair than black,” which provokes laughter from the audience, and defuses any lingering uneasiness about Othello’s race.

Moreover, Ortiz plays the title role with dignity and a vocal agility that emphasizes the poetry of the text. One of the finest moments in the evening comes early on, as Othello describes how he won the love of Desdemona (Jessica Chastain). His speech is languorous and seductive, drawing the audience into the tales Othello spins, just as they captivated his new bride.

Another of the production’s strengths is the casting of Philip Seymour Hoffman as Iago. The actor brings an emotional depth to his role, sometimes coming off more as a wounded child rather than an evil villain. This interpretation is supported by the fact that, in this production, Iago has just cause for putting his nefarious plot in motion. Not only has he been passed over for promotion in favor of Cassio (Leroy McClain), but Othello is sleeping with Iago’s wife, Emilia (Liza Colon-Zayas). But while this shift gives a fuller dimension to Iago, it seriously undermines Emilia’s character arc. It also puts a very different spin on Othello’s interactions with both Iago and Desdemona.

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. While the gender-switch in the Montano scenes — particularly the character’s altercation with a drunk Cassio — lead to some powerful moments, the later scenes in the play do not jibe with what’s come before, despite the hard-working Ekulona’s attempts to silently project an emotional subtext to help bridge the gap.

Indeed, the subtexts that various actors within the production attempt to portray often go against the grain of Shakespeare’s words — such as the sarcastic delivery of Othello’s speech about Iago’s honesty, which throws the production way off balance. For if Othello has such a low opinion of Iago that early in the play, it is less credible that he’d be taken in by the man’s lies.

The use of modern technology lends a bit of humor to the proceedings, as characters pull out cell phones and Blackberries to hold certain conversations. A little of this goes a long way, though, and the device is overused in the beginning of the play, but thankfully less utilized as the proceedings continue. The main structure of the set, designed by Gregor Holzinger, is a bed made out of television screens. Most of the time, the monitors display an abstract array of colors, although certain images such as a ship or bloodied hands are also viewed.

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 — especially in the show’s final 30 minutes, which crawls to its inevitable conclusion without any of the passion usually associated with the play’s climactic events.