New productions of any of the best-known works in the Shakespeare canon are unfortunately held up to the most intense scrutiny as there’s always someone still alive who remembers “the” definitive production of any of them. The people that can still reminisce about the classic Paul Robeson Othellos are few, but there are plenty still with us that flocked to the mesmerizing Othello of American royalty James Earl Jones battling the searing evil of Christopher Plummer’s Iago about 40 years ago.
The production at hand, presented by New Place Players, has a lot going for it in a stunning playing space, the Casa Clara, the actual living (and working) space of Clara Aich, a commercial photographer from Hungary. Imagine a widened railroad apartment with high ceilings (high enough for a working balcony window on one side and a sweeping staircase to an open bedroom on the other). The walls are covered with stone and wood carvings, and shelving for candles and other decorative art pieces. Off in a corner there’s a three-piece band alternating on harp, lute, viol, keyboards and snare drums who somehow manage to never be physically in the way of the scenes at hand.
The set design of Shawn Lewis places us firmly in Shakespeare’s time with fine drapery, rugs and tapestries. Jennifer Paar’s costumes are stunning, particularly in the attention paid to the brick-dyed faux leather of Othello, Cassio and Iago’s uniforms. The layers of Desdemona’s dress are sumptuous. The only misstep of the evening is the sparkling footwear of Roderigo, more something out of Liberace’s closet than that of a Venetian gentleman. Lighting design of Ethan Steimel is often the star of the show for how well it creates the mood with subtle shadows off the various wall art, and the creation of moonlight in the early scene at Brabantio’s window.
It is a curious thing then when the most complete and engaging performances come from two of the minor characters, one at the very beginning of the play, and another we don’t meet until Act 4. The Brabantio (Desdemona’s father) of Matthew Dudley is an utterly heartbreaking display of a father losing his daughter to her new husband. The subtle actor’s choice of having only one arm in the sleeve of the outer garment covering his nightgown is a choice based on desperation and urgency of having to run out in the middle of the night to apprehend his daughter’s abductor.
Topher Kielbasa as Lodovico (relative of Brabantio and Desdemona) is the consummate witness of the actions of Othello as the general spirals out of control until the end of the play. Lodovico’s reactions, intuitively, are the same as those of the audience, and Kielbasa fills them with pained emotional response and thoughtful commentary on something he can hardly control.
In the most elementary explanation of a play’s dramatic structure, the protagonist is the character who drives the action and is the emotional heart of the narrative. Everyone knows how the play Othello is going to end, so really the artistic and entertainment value hinges on whether an audience can sympathize with Othello as he is manipulated by the extent of Iago’s hatred for him. Unfortunately for Eliott Johnson as Othello, we meet him as the already heralded general of the Venetian army but witness nothing heroic about him. This monotone Othello doesn’t even raise his voice until Act 3, Scene 4, with “Zounds!,” an epithet meaning God’s wounds, and only upon his exit after confronting Desdemona about the missing heirloom handkerchief.
Alanah Allen as Desdemona truly engages us from the moment she makes her first entrance, making eye contact with the audience as if we are members of the court during her explanation of her devotion to Othello. With the role of Othello being played so laid back, it makes for an uncomfortable challenge for the actress as she must entreaty Othello to grant Cassio an audience. If he suspects her infidelity, we don’t see that; instead, it is like watching an executive dismissing an annoying salesman’s pitch…something he does every day. Thankfully her other scenes, particularly with the sympathetic and faithful Emilia (Helen Herbert), are reflective and always sensitively drawn. She is the victim, and not Othello.
Conor Andrew Hall is mystifying as Iago, taking down everyone in his path to undermine Othello. He is so driven in his intent he only occasionally takes the moment to push his unruly hair out of his range of vision. His scenes with Roderigo (Nathan Krasner) and Cassio (Matthew Iannone) are electric and move the competitive character arcs along their paths engagingly, in contrast to the leaden scenes he shares with Othello, which move along thanks to Mr. Hall’s capacity to “automatic pilot” to get to the next scene. The other hurdle he faces as an actor is an incessant underscoring from the musicians – ominous low keyboard notes sometimes unfortunately louder than the actor speaking his lines. Yes, we get it…he’s the villain, but we can’t hear what he has to say. Mr. Iannone, too, is solid in his victim role with his moments he shares with Desdemona being some of the most achingly honest in the entire play, but likewise for him, his scenes with Othello are borderline soporific.
Responsibility for this uneven Othello must rest on the shoulders of director Makenna Masenheimer. Notes provided to the press indicate she came late to her role so perhaps there may have been things she could not change or work around. Testing the acoustics of the enormous space to make sure an actor’s ability to nuance their role while the musicians played would have been a good use of time. Staging the final scenes so that after Emilia is stabbed and Othello’s self-inflicted stabbing they shouldn’t have had to climb sixteen steps to a playing space inconvenient for the audience to look up to would have been appreciated. Likewise, half the audience could not see Brabantio housed in his balcony during his incredibly significant opening scene of the play. To have an actor in a lead role not come alive until Act V, meaning not exhibiting any dynamics worthy of engaging an audience for close to three hours, is the most egregious offense.
The Casa Clara is a visually arresting “stage” for an intimate theatrical event. It would be interesting to see other theater companies line up to use the space, as its layout and furnishings can fuel so much creativity.
Othello (through February 25, 2023)
New Place Players
Casa Clara, 218 East 25th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.newplaceplayers.org/othello
Running time: two hours and 45 minutes with one intermission