Review: New Place Players Present an Intimate "Othello" that Feels Both Fresh and Timeless

Othello

Written by William Shakespeare

Directed by Makenna Masenheimer

Presented by the New Place Players at Casa Clara

218 E. 25th St, Manhattan, NYC

February 4-March 25, 2023

Alanah Allen and Eliott Johnson. Photo by Carol Rosegg
New Place Players’ production of Othello feels both historically sensitive and modern at the same time. The proximity of actors to audience as a result of the small, intimate Casa Clara space; minimal set; lavish costumes; and well-integrated musicians reinforce much of what we teach students about the public theater of late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century England. On the other hand, many of the production’s choices, particularly around the characters of Othello and, surprisingly, Bianca, make it even more compelling for a modern audience.

As the director’s program notes detail, the production did not seek to soften the racism that explicitly or implicitly fuels the major characters’ behavior. Instead, it seems, in the production’s quest to ensure that a white audience is forced to confront that the racism of Shakespeare’s time is our own, several choices surrounding the performance of Othello (Eliott Johnson) render him an even more sympathetic figure. In 4.1, we do not see a twitching, dehumanized Othello having taken complete leave of his senses following Iago’s revelation that Cassio has been casually discussing his physical relationship with Desdemona, nor does Othello strike Desdemona following her renewed pleas on Cassio’s behalf. Both choices result in making audience sympathy for Othello less complicated, as staging domestic abuse in particular to a contemporary audience would seriously test such sympathy.

Eliott Johnson (center) as Othello. Photo by Carol Rosegg

In a similar vein, the entire murder scene takes place at a remove from the audience, up on a balcony. The audience, so close to the characters for so many of the play’s most intense moments, and privy to their innermost thoughts, has to strain to see what is happening. Perhaps that is the point. To witness the murder in close proximity is a major challenge to our sympathy for Othello; of course, presenting it at a remove does not completely mitigate that challenge (nor would one want to), but it does serve to make it a more remote, something we don’t have to confront so directly.            

If many of the production’s choices seem designed to increase the audience’s collective horror at what is done to Othello, those which enhance the role of Bianca (Rose Kanj) emphasize the misogyny and ill-treatment faced by all three of the play’s female characters. Not only is Bianca’s on-stage time increased (showing her disembarking on Cyprus with the others in 2.1, for example), but she has an integral role in 4.3 in a way that allies her with Desdemona and Emilia, at least in the audience’s mind. It is Bianca who sings the Willow Song (which she reprises during the curtain call at the end), from up on the balcony at the back of the stage, with Desdemona (Alanah Allen) joining in only occasionally. Bianca’s participation in a scene that is so moving for modern audiences reminds us that she is belied and trodden-upon too.
Rose Kanj and Matthew Iannone. Photo by Carol Rosegg
Overall, the production succeeds in feeling both fresh and timeless, reinforcing the message that the racism that fuels it in many ways remains unchanged. The standout performances of Johnson’s Othello and Helen Herbert’s Emilia, combined with the musicians’ arrangements of Renaissance consort music, and the unique and well-used Casa Clara space, create a memorable, moving performance.

-Stephanie Pietros

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