The Playgoer: What I've Been Seeeing

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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

What I've Been Seeeing

To confirm that Playgoer indeed still does go to plays, I've decided to discipline myself better about writing them up. When sitting down to write a whole "review" seems to daunting, though, I may resort to this new feature, "What I've Been Seeing"--a way to take the pressure off myself and simply unload what I most remember about notable productions.

And so, here's what I've been seeing lately. I'll get to Broadway another time, but here are two prominent Non-Broadway productions I saw last month that deserve some reflecting upon--even though they are, alas, now closed.


Aftermath (New York Theatre Workshop). Exonerated's Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen interview Iraqi refugees and put their words on stage. (closed)

First, wonderful cast. The company of nine Arab and South Asian actors, most of whom I had never seen before, was very impressive. The stories they had to tell (taken from the words of the actual Iraqis interviewed) were powerful, especially in reminding us of yet another horrific blunder of our misadventure in that country: ruining the lives of so many of the people we were supposedly trying to save.

So that combination of gripping stories powerfully told and embodied was basically worth it. However, as with Exonerated, I find myself bothered by Blank and Jensen's approach. First, something about the staging (by Blank) and structure of Aftermath seemed really awkward and plodding. In interspersing the stories of two couples and four individuals, Blank made the actors keep moving into spotlights from upstage--resulting in a new "cutaway" and transition every ten minutes or so. Theatrically this just became inevitably tiresome and ended up sucking some of the power out of the fine material. Also, the creators' decision to have one actor behave as "translator" had a number of odd effects. One, for the first twenty minutes or so the storytellers began talking in Arabic, with the translator "translating," and then--magically!--letting these Iraqis morph suddenly into English-speakers. It's a convention well known from the movies and here seemed entirely unnecessary. Sure, I guess it foregrounded the very nature of translation and lent some "authenticity" to the proceedings. But problems of translation didn't really figure in the rest of the play, when this convention was soon dropped. Moreover, while the storytellers mostly addressed the audience directly, that "translator" was always there mediating, and often lessening our direct connection with the characters. This ended up actually softening the blow, I felt, when certain characters directly accused the U.S. (i.e. us) of ruining their lives.

All in all, this had the ingredients of good documentary political theatre, but suffered from a little too much meddling from its non-Iraqi creative team.


Othello directed by Peter Sellars, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman (LABrynth & Public Theatres, at NYU)

You may have gathered many folks didn't much care for this production. Let's just say there was a lot to scratch your head about.

While I too questioned the costuming of Mr. Hoffman (an ill-fitting merino sweater of the ugliest green--to signified some green-bellied monster?), I actually liked his performance. Sure, this was not an Iago that would have made sense in any realistic staging of the play--playing his sadistic subtext for all to see, hulking around the stage like a crybaby about to go postal--but, hey, this was hardly a realistic production. As he did in Long Day's Journey and The Seagull Hoffman once again reminded us of his fine stage chops--he's one of our few major movie stars who can project the exact same quiet intensity on stage as he does on screen. His line readings were, well, weird sometimes--but never boring. He illuminated the knotty text powerfully and completely inhabited it. So whether or not it was a "proper" Iago...I was riveted whenever he was on stage.

Unfortunately, Iago isn't in every scene. And the rest of the LABrynth ensemble--while shown to good effect in other, more contemporary and naturalistic plays--just were not up to Hoffman's level natural skills and engagement with the text. And in the case of John Ortiz (who's shone in other LABrynth productions and in supporting roles for Michael Mann films), here was an actor who never would be cast as Othello were he not co-running the company. Whether it was Ortiz's relatively slight build, his thin voice, his unfortunate resemblance (from the balcony at least) to SNL's Fred Armisen...he was so overpowered by Hoffman from the get-go, and so unconvincing as the swashbuckling slayer of Turks, that the character dynamics of this monumental tragedy were thrown fatally off balance.

As for Sellars' vision, perhaps I'm one of the few who wishes he futzed more with the play, not less. I enjoyed his reimagining of the play's opening intrigues and backroom dealings as a series of furtive (sometimes simultaneous) cell phone conferences, manipulated by Iago. I was genuinely creeped out by the exaggerated horror-movie style of Iago and Othello's plotting against Cassio (played face out, into microphones, with campfire from-below lighting and spooky underscoring). Meanwhile, Sellars' stated intentions of creating an Othello for the Obama age never really materialized on stage. Dressing soldiers in formal navy blues and plopping a bed of tv screens center stage don't exactly do the directing for you. Deciding to go with pretty much the full four-hour(!) text in this context seemed senseless since Sellars' concept only came through in brief spurts, leaving lots of longueurs of unsteadily spoken blank verse in between.

So for me what was most wrong with this Othello was an odd schizoid quality that I've not seen anyone else point out. It was like two productions going on at once, and colliding. On the one hand you have Peter Sellars doing the full regietheater, using actors as symbols to make bold ironic intellectual statements on a big industrial stage (in this case NYU's Skirball Center). And then you have the LABrynth ensemble: a bunch of gritty naturalists who perform best in small blackboxes with contemporary material. Given the set's mostly bare stage (outside of the much-maligned "TV-bed") and contemporary clothing, what unfolded often looked, comically, like a group of very inward looking method actors who had broken into Wooster Group headquarters to do a four-hour runthrough on their stage.

3 comments:

Tom Shea said...

His name is Fred Armisen. Seriously, would it kill you to check this stuff?

Robert said...

I agreed w/ a lot on the Othello, but I was mystified by Hoffman. I found it interesting that they played up his anger, but I thought he was only alternating b/w intense brooding and shouting. Perhaps this has a lot to do with PS's staging of having the offstage characters onstage. I don't think he (PS or PSH) gave space for Iago's interiority. As a character, Iago is unreadable and Hoffman, in his frumpy sweater, was just unpredictable at best.

The Playgoer said...

Actually Tom, this morning at 8am when I was rushing to get that post up...yes, it would have killed me.

I certainly apologize to Mr. ARMISEN and have duly corrected the spelling in the post.

But if that's the only typo you found in that whole thing, then I'm actually feeling pretty good about myself as a blogger today!