Following an extended pandemic hiatus, New Place Players has returned to NYC with a unique site-specific staging of Shakespeare’s 1603-04 tragedy Othello at the historic Casa Clara, a former foundry in Kips Bay, built in 1848, fitted with stairways and balconies, and lavishly adorned with sculpture. Developed by artistic director Craig Bacon and directed by Makenna Masenheimer, the intimate immersive production, limited to an audience of 50, in seats closely flanking the performance on three sides, combines acting with Lecoq movement, swordplay, live chamber music, and an expressive soundscape that bring to life the Bard’s rich poetic language, psychological and emotional insights, and universal themes of deception and manipulation, pride and gullibility, jealousy and vengeance, while shining a timely spotlight on the characters’ racist, classist, and misogynist attitudes, in the classic tale of the Moor of Venice.
Set in Venice and Cyprus during the Ottoman-Venetian War of the early 1570s, the show’s sumptuous period-style character-defining costumes by Jennifer Paar, arresting scenic design by Shawn Lewis, with pendant Moroccan lamps, Oriental carpets and wall hangings, and Ethan Steimel’s evocative theatrical lighting, augmented with flickering candles and handheld lanterns, transport us there. So does the Renaissance consort music – beautifully performed by company members Anna Bikales on harp, arranger Daniel Keene on lute, and music director Flavio Gaete on violin – including pieces by Elizabethan court composer and lutenist John Johnson and his son Robert Johnson, who collaborated with Shakespeare, creating ayres for several of his plays. Gaete (managing director of New Place Players) also contributed the sound design, employing live percussion, piano, and synthesizers played by the ensemble to underscore the shifting moods of the story, heightening the dramatic tension and creating a spinechilling sense of foreboding that aurally engulfs us as the narrative unfolds.
Eliott Johnson stars in the eponymous role of the Black Moorish general in the service of Venice, who angers his ensign and trusted friend Iago (Conor Andrew Hall) by promoting his inexperienced rival and well-bred courtier Cassio (Matthew Iannone), not him, to the position of lieutenant, and antagonizes Brabantio (Matthew Dudley), a respected senator of Venice and father of Desdemona (Alanah Allen) – a young white Venetian woman of high birth and virtue, who, impressed with Othello’s heroism, married him in secret, without paternal knowledge or consent.
Those actions set off a deadly chain of events, in which race, class, position, and gender are consequential, plotted by the scheming, duplicitous, and villainous Iago, after enlisting the aid of his unwitting wife and Desdemona’s attendant Emilia (Helen Herbert) and Desdemona’s rejected suitor Roderigo (Nathan Krasner) to reap his revenge. Othello is ultimately duped into believing (through the planting of a dropped handkerchief and a slyly orchestrated overheard conversation) that the innocent and loving Desdemona has been unfaithful to him with Cassio – who, in fact, has engaged in frequent liaisons with the courtesan Bianca (Rose Kanj), never with the Moor’s wife – sparking Othello’s jealousy and pride, and resulting in a series of impassioned, violent, and fatal confrontations, and the suicide of the titular “one who loved not wisely but too well.”
The consistently compelling cast – rounded out by Matthew Appleby, Topher Kielbasa, Aaron McDaniel, and Ryan Joseph Swartz in supporting roles – is well-versed in Shakespeare (the company’s specialty), displaying a facility with the language and skillfully delivering the distinctive personalities, their motivations, and development (with voice and text coaching by Corinna May). Under Masenheimer’s superb direction and blocking (among the best I’ve ever seen), and movement direction by Adrienne Kapstein, they make use of the entire space, flowing naturally and purposefully from scene to scene, from main room and entryway to the stairways and balconies, coming within inches of the audience, breaking the fourth wall, and thoroughly engaging and playing to everyone, on all sides, with their fluid motion, in-the-round sensibility, direct-address soliloquies, and eye contact, while fully inhabiting their characters.
It all displays the ensemble’s mastery of the Lecoq method, using simple but effective movements that carry significant communicative depth – from Desdemona’s dutiful bowing to her father and husband to Othello’s commanding stance and disturbed pacing to Iago’s consummately timed exits – and engender a personal relatability and relationship with the audience. The fight choreography, essential to the plot, is equally believable and well-executed (fight direction by McDaniel), as is Desdemona’s plaintive rendition of “The Willow Song” – an Elizabethan folk ballad originally sung by a man betrayed by his lover but switched by Shakespeare to the woman’s lament about the cruelty of a husband who doubts her honesty and fidelity, mournfully foreshadowing her murder.
New Place Players’ Othello offers a captivating, close-up, fully realized production of an iconic Shakespearean tragedy enriched with a complex interplay of elements that immerses us in both history and a timeless human theme. It’s what makes a classic a classic and what makes this an experience that shouldn’t be missed.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 55 minutes, including an intermission.