Arin Arbus’ production of
Othello, being presented by the Theatre for the New Audience at the Duke on 42nd Street, is as near perfect a production of the eternally startling tragedy as a Shakespeare fan would hope to encounter. Or, for that matter, as any lover of old-fashioned blood-stirring melodrama would hope to meet in a dark and shadowy theater. Everything about it — as it unfolds on Peter Ksander’s somber minimalist set — is bloody good though immaculately stage-blood-less.
Arbus, who proves she knows how to handle the Bard, provides a straight-forward telling of Shakespeare’s driving narrative about the downfall of the warrior Othello (John Douglas Thompson) due to his loving “not wisely but too well” once he begins believing the lies about his bride that the “honest” Iago (Ned Eisenberg) tells him about the pure Desdemona (Juliet Rylance) and then backs his plan up by orchestrating the sudden re-appearance of a mislaid handkerchief, here brownish-yellow and decorated by a red pattern, echoing the coverlet on the bed at the play’s fateful denouement.
Laying out the mesmerizing intrigue, Shakespeare kept things trim, and Arbus judiciously trims them even more. Once she’s done that — as well as lined up savvy collaborators like costumer Miranda Hoffman, lighting designer Marcus Doshi, and sound designer Matt O’Hare — she sees to it the action never flags. Then she stands out of the paths of actors making intelligible and chillingly intelligent every line of prose and iambic pentameter they have.
The bigger-than-life Thompson delivers his increasingly anxiety-plagued speeches in the right kind of orotund tones. It’s as if he’s a fire-in-his-nostrils bull whose assault by a deft toreador sends him into accelerating disequilibrium. The ultimate test for any Othello is how he acquits himself when finally confronted with his destructive gullibility. Thompson passes with top marks, engendering the awe the role is geared to inspire but often doesn’t.
He meets his emoting equal in lean and cool-eyed Eisenberg, who actually does include a bit of con-man hand-rubbing as he goes about Iago’s machinations with undeterred method. Watching Eisenberg watch the other characters fall prey to Iago’s plans is like watching a man who’s noted Puck’s remark about “what fools these mortals be” and has decided to take satanic advantage of that all-too-human condition.
Rylance, the daughter of Tony Award winner and renowned Shakespearean Mark Rylance, has inherited her father’s affinity for this poetic milieu. Blonde with refined features and the grace of a confident Siamese cat, she makes every move natural and therefore more pitiable. Also giving appealingly persuasive performances among the laudable ensemble are Kate Forbes as faithful Emilia, Lucas Hall as good but doomed Cassio, and Elizabeth Meadows Rouse as blowzy gal-about-town Bianca.