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Philip Seymour Hoffman in 'Othello': What did the critics think?

September 28, 2009 | 12:28 pm


Even Oscar-winning actors with impeccable stage credentials have their bad days.

And this is certainly one of them for Philip Seymour Hoffman, who is starring as Iago in a revival of Shakespeare's "Othello." The reviews for this off-Broadway production, presented by the Public Theater and the LAByrinth Theater Company, have been unkind to say the least, with most of the vitriol aimed at director Peter Sellars' postmodern interpretation.

Running close to four hours, this "Othello" takes place in present day and features a set made up  mostly of television monitors. LAByrinth's John Ortiz plays the title role, a much-honored military leader who gradually suspects his wife of infidelity. Some of the roles in Shakespeare's play have been condensed or re-purposed by Sellars into composite characters.

The production, which runs through Oct. 4 at the Jack H. Skirball Center at New York University, was one of the season's most widely anticipated stage events. But after today's barrage of negative reviews, audiences may be thinking twice. Keep reading for the critics' reaction.

Ben Brantley of the New York Times led the charge with a scathing review in which he called the production "exasperatingly misconceived" and "wrongheaded." He singled out Sellars' heavy-handed interpretation of the text, saying that the director "has written his own play about love and war, and that Shakespeare’s words mostly just get in the way." But he praised Hoffman for creating "a provocative portrait of a man burned to an ashen, angry nihilism by years of unrewarded service."  


Equally harsh was John Simon of Bloomberg News, who wrote that the production "offends Shakespeare, common sense and decency." The critic lashed out at the director's abstract interpretation of the play: "The list of absurdities goes on, though none holds a candle to allowing Sellars to perpetrate this obscenity, and the behavior of a large part of the audience that, instead of storming the box office with demands for a refund, actually applauds the abysmal event."

Michael Kuchwara of the Associated Press described the production as "quite an ordeal, despite occasional bursts of inventiveness. It's high-concept time with ideas rather than Shakespeare's language or character ruling the day. But clever can take you only so far." He added that "Sellars' intentions are adventurous, but the actors let him down and never tap into the play's innate tragedy. If a production is going to last four hours, it needs to dazzle with more than a director's novel, idiosyncratic musings."

New York magazine's Scott Brown wrote that "Sellars’s Othello has almost nothing intelligible to say. It’s obsessed only with its own 'post'-ness." Of Hoffman's performance, he said that the actor's "bemused croak, the long pause, and the sudden roar serve as a slowly rotating lazy susan of lazy acting tricks."

A sympathetic but not exactly positive review came from Linda Winer of Newsday, who wrote that Sellars' interpretation features a "stripped-down, stark intelligence" and an "altogether captivating anti-star turn" by Hoffman. But she added that after four hours, the production feels like a "lengthy psycho-political exercise."

-- David Ng

Top photo: Philip Seymour Hoffman and John Ortiz in "Othello." Credit: Armin Bardel.

Bottom photo: From left, Liza Colon-Zayas as Emilia, Jessica Chastain as Desdemona, John Ortiz as Othello and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Iago. Credit: Armin Bardel.