In her Theatre for a New Audience debut, director Arin Arbus offers a thoughtful and unadorned staging of Othello. Earlier announcements had promised a two-hour production with an emphasis on Christian-Muslim conflict, yet Arbus has foregone such stratagems so utterly that this Othello runs nearly three hours and its Moorish lead, the excellent John Douglas Thompson, wears a cross around his neck.
While this absence of interpretation is refreshing and the performances are generally good, it’s difficult to ascertain what sparked Arbus’s interest in this particular play, which the great critic A.C. Bradley described as “the most painfully exciting and the most terrible” of Shakespeare’s tragedies. There’s care in the way Arbus shapes the stage pictures and in her direction of the scenes, particularly the soliloquies, but the individual parts—though artful—never quite resolve into an awful, inevitable whole. One might bestow some blame on the accents: Most are American, yet Othello’s is African, Desdemona’s is English (courtesy of the lovely Juliet Rylance, spawn of Mark Rylance), and Ned Eisenberg has pitched his Iago somewhere between Spanish and stage Jew. These concerns aside, Arbus directs Othello wisely—and well enough.