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A CurtainUp Review

O, beware, my lord, of jealousy! It is the green-eyed monster, which doth mock the meat it feeds on.—Iago
John Douglas Thompson as Othello
In the press release for the Theatre for a New Audience's production of Othello, director Arin Arbus comments that "Othello will open four weeks after Barack Obama's inauguration, making February 2009 an interesting time to explore Shakespeare's great tragedy about a black leader in a white society. The play depicts a culture, not unlike our own, that both promotes diversity and undermines it." This statement is instructive in that it reflects Arbus's fundamental take on Shakespeare's famous meditation on race, jealousy and revenge: to wit, it's really mostly about item number one. This single-mindedness gives the TFNA production a razor sharp focus, but I wonder how much of the rest of the play is lost in service of that end.

Every aspect of the production reflects Arbus's approach, from the utterly minimalist set (designed by Peter Ksander and consisting of a black three-quarter thrust stage, a balcony, and an occasional onstage prop) to the lighting (designed by Marcus Doshi and mostly consisting of beams of white light, wider and narrower as circumstances warrant) to line reading interpretations. All are intended to draw attention to the racial elements which pervade Venetian society and with which Othello must constantly contend, and there's a certain logic to this method. Othello is, after all, never fully at ease in Venice's polite (and white) society, and despite his "great service" to the state his uprightness and moral nature are always balanced by others gainst his skin color: "If virtue no delighted beauty lack, / Your son-in-law is far more fair than black," the Duke says to Desdemona's enraged father Brabantio about the Moor, presumably meaning his words as a compliment. In Shakespeare's imagination, anti-Semitism was not Venice's only vice.

The problem with this directorial choice, though, is it tends to gloss over the play's other issues, and in many cases even glosses over the subtleties of the play's racial concerns themselves. Actors have clearly been instructed to give weight to the more obvious racist lines such as the one I quote above, and the effect at times is to render the performance a little stilted—earnest, perhaps, but not particularly inspired. Clearly this isn't all Arbus's fault, since some of the actors are better than others at rendering their emotions with nuance. But I'm always suspicious of attempts to put Shakespeare in a box, and in this case Arbus (making her off-Broadway directorial debut) seems to be a little too anxious to do that.

Acting could compensate for some of this, and at times it does; as usual, the TFNA cast is (basically) solid, and most of the actors provide at least competent portrayals of the characters. Elizabeth Meadows Rouse delivers a surprisingly sympathetic Bianca, and Lucas Hall is equally convincing as Cassio; others, like Denis Butkus as Roderigo and Graham Winton as Brabantio and later Lodovico, give similarly high quality performances. But by far the best work is done by Kate Forbes (who was just as good in TFNA's All's Well That Ends Well a couple of years ago) as Emilia and especially the beautiful Juliet Rylance as Desdemona, who captures the young Venetian's innocence without transforming it to passivity; her warmth and passion is striking, and if this performance (her New York stage debut) is any indication, we will have the opportunity to enjoy her work for many years to come. The most compelling scene in the play takes place between these two, Emilia readying Desdemona for bed while both women meditate on fidelity and the strange, changeable natures of men.

But of course the play must rise and fall with its two main characters, and it's here that the production runs into its biggest problems. The redoubtable Ned Eisenberg follows his TFNA rendition of the villainous Fagin with an even more evil Iago, but again the subtlety seems somewhat lost. Eisenberg is competent as usual, but in his body language and mannerisms (at times he seemed on the edge of twirling a phantom handlebar mustache) he plays up the obvious nature of Iago's dislike for his superior so much that it's hard to fathom how Othello could miss his malice. But the worst offender of all is John Douglas Thompson's Othello, which is sometimes shockingly sophomoric. In Thompson's hands Othello is at times unconvincing (I had a hard time understanding why Desdemona would have been drawn in by Othello's storytelling, given how stiffly he relates the experience of wooing her) and at others ridiculous—rage-filled Othello certainly is, but a ravening lunatic he is not, and Thompson seems to have trouble navigating the difference.

This isn't a bad production by any means; there are some nice touches, especially in the scenes involving Desdemona and Emilia, and Shakespeare's quality will almost always shine through if given the opportunity. But as I've said before, Theatre for a New Audience is one of the most consistently excellent companies we have, and this isn't up to its usual standard. In the end, that may be the risk one takes in concentrating so much on the tree of racism that the forest of the play is missed in the process.

Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Arin Arbus
Cast: Denis Butkus (Roderigo), Ned Eisenberg (Iago), Kate Forbes (Emilia), Lucas Hall (Cassio), Robert Langdon Lloyd (Duke of Venice, Gratiano, Senator), Elizabeth Meadows Rouse (Bianca), Christian Rummel (Montano, Senator), Juliet Rylance (Desdemona), Alexander Sovronsky (Senator, Soldier, Cypriot Musician), John Douglas Thompson (Othello), Graham Winton (Brabantio, Lodovico)
Scenic Designer: Peter Ksander
Costume Designer: Miranda Hoffman
Lighting Designer: Marcus Doshi
Running time: Two hours, fifty minutes (includes one fifteen minute intermission)
The Duke on 42nd St., 229 West 42nd St., (646) 223-3010
From 2/14/09 to 3/07/09; opening 2/22/09
Wed., Fri. — Sat. @ 7 p.m., Sat. @ 2 p.m.
Tickets: $35, $10 youth
Reviewed by Dr. Gregory A. Wilson based on February 22nd preview performance
Editor's Note--There were enough top ranked reviews for the show to have a comeback in April, in hopes of finding support for a Broadway transfer.
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