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Here is the raving review from the NYTimes:
February 24, 2009
THEATER REVIEW | 'OTHELLO'
Love Curdled Through a Malevolent Scheme
By CHARLES ISHERWOOD
The spring theater season this year is enticingly rich, both on Broadway and off. But I suspect it will not bring a Shakespeare production to equal the gripping “Othello” now blazing across the stage of the Duke on 42nd Street Theater, courtesy of Theater for a New Audience. I can say this partly because Shakespeare has unfortunately become a relative rarity on major New York stages, but primarily because this production is so terrific.
No, there are no marquee names — British, American or anything else — to entice the verse-averse or make the show a necessary ticket for cocktail party chatter. Shakespeare is the star here, but he is handled with the kind of artistry we always hope for and rarely find. This is among the most sensitively directed, eloquently designed and impeccably acted productions of a Shakespeare tragedy that the city has seen in years.
The director, Arin Arbus, might just be a star in the making, or to put it less glibly — and more realistically — a potentially important artist. The associate artistic director of Theater for a New Audience, she makes an extraordinary Off Broadway debut with this production.
Do not go looking for a ham-fisted personal signature or bold innovation. Ms. Arbus allows this most taut and tense of Shakespeare’s tragedies to weave its inexorable spell simply by letting the language breathe and the drama unfold at a quietly accelerating rhythm. And by encouraging her actors to engage with one another on a level so natural and yet so intense that the audience cannot help being made to feel the powerful, painful weight of the play’s beauty.
She gets out of Shakespeare’s way, in other words, but this is only the reward of much intelligent care and hard work. You get the sense that each moment in the play has been thought through, line by line and even step by step, with the result that every scene achieves its purpose with a trenchant simplicity. I can’t remember any other Shakespeare production that inspired my admiration even for the way the actors are arrayed on a simple thrust stage, creating compositions of rich emotional eloquence. It helps that her design team — Peter Ksander (sets), Miranda Hoffman (costumes) and particularly Marcus Doshi (lighting) — all contribute first-rate, understated work in tune with Ms. Arbus’s rigorously simple aesthetic.
To cite just one small example, I love the way Ms. Arbus stages the crucial scene in which Iago begins to chip away at the foundations of Othello’s love for Desdemona. They are placed at opposite ends of a long table, and distracted by busywork, as Iago (Ned Eisenberg) casually begins letting little suggestions of doubt and suspicion drop from his tongue, almost as if unconsciously.
Othello (John Douglas Thompson) at first lets these subtle digs slide by, but Mr. Eisenberg’s insidious inflections grow more pronounced, and Mr. Thompson’s Othello goes from calm to needled to unnerved. This is the way, Ms. Arbus underscores, that evil does its most effective work — in an offhand manner, not through the obvious gesture but while the mind is ostensibly occupied with other things. It’s wholesale destruction by stealth attack.
Ms. Arbus’s exemplary work would have far less impact if her cast were inadequate or merely competent. But the actors in the play’s crucial roles — Mr. Thompson and Mr. Eisenberg, along with Juliet Rylance as Desdemona, and Kate Forbes as Emilia — handle the demands of the writing with a confidence that allows them to inhabit the characters so naturally that even the knottiest verse feels like spontaneous expression.
Mr. Thompson has a voice almost too comfortably beautiful for Othello, and a couple of times I thought he lapsed into making simply gorgeous music of the words. But his performance is carefully paced and wrought with care. The tenderness of Othello’s love for Desdemona feels as palpably real as the violence that surges through his body when Iago’s poison begins to infect his blood. (The moment in which he cautions Iago to be sure of his information, or pay a grim price, is hair-raising.)
Moreover, the process by which Othello’s love is corrupted and coarsened into something monstrous is revealed with a clarity that rings terribly true.
This is partly because Mr. Eisenberg’s Iago is likewise human-scaled, compelling in soliloquy but in company almost a faceless functionary whom nobody would suspect of having the brains, or the ambition, to bring down a great man. The performance is decked out in small, witty flourishes — a mocking thumbs-up as his victims obediently take up their roles as dupes in his plan to destroy Othello — but there is a sense, too, of bone-deep malevolence in his casually contemptuous, brutal treatment of his wife. And the bitter half-smile with which Iago looks on at the waste he has wrought in the final scene says everything about his shriveled soul.
Ms. Rylance is the daughter of the great Shakespearean actor Mark Rylance, the former artistic chief of Shakespeare’s Globe in London and a Tony winner this year for his farcical turn in “Boeing-Boeing.” Whether her gifts are primarily due to nature or nurturing is as immaterial as the talent is impressive.
Her performance is exquisitely moving, but not in the softly sighing way of so many Desdemonas. There is steel in this woman’s spine, and yet her love is so overpowering that even as Othello drops dark hints of his intentions in the last scene, she keeps kissing him ardently, the words barely penetrating the feeling in her heart.
The role of Emilia, Desdemona’s handmaiden and Iago’s wife, is technically small, but any good actress also knows that it can be a meaty and even a mighty one. Ms. Forbes, so fine as Helena in the same company’s “All’s Well That Ends Well” a few years ago, gives it its due in a performance of wonderful strength and dignity, allowing the play to sustain its emotional force straight through to the end.
The heart leaps in sympathy as Ms. Forbes’s cowed Emilia finds the courage to expose her husband’s evil, shedding the hard light of truth on the enveloping darkness. But of course it is much too little, much too late.
By William Shakespeare; directed by Arin Arbus; music by Sarah Pickett; choreography by Doug Elkins; fight direction by B. H. Barry; sets by Peter Ksander; lighting by Marcus Doshi; costumes by Miranda Hoffman; sound by Matt O’Hare. Presented by the Theater for a New Audience, Jeffrey Horowitz, artistic director. At the Duke on 42nd Street Theater, 229 West 42nd Street, Manhattan; (212) 229-2819. Through March 7. Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes.
WITH: John Douglas Thompson (Othello), Juliet Rylance (Desdemona), Denis Butkus (Roderigo), Ned Eisenberg (Iago), Graham Winton (Brabantio/Lodovico/soldier), Lucas Hall (Cassio), Robert Langdon Lloyd (Duke of Venice/senator/Gratiano), Christian Rummel (Montano/senator), Alexander Sovronsky (senator/soldier/Cypriot musician), Kate Forbes (Emilia) and Elizabeth Meadows Rouse (Bianca).