Several years ago I predicted that the Seeing Place Theater would outgrow its home in Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan, and the group’s sixth season has proven me right. Of course, I’m not going to quit my day job and become a fortuneteller – anybody who has ever seen any of the Seeing Place’s high-quality productions over the last six seasons would have likely come to the same conclusion.
While the Seeing Place’s previous space was just outside the Theater District, the Clarion Theatre (309 East 26th Street) is off the beaten path in terms of theatrical productions (the Seeing Place refers to it as an “arts-starved area”). The primarily residential-and-bars Kips Bay neighborhood is an odd place to find a production of Othello on a March night, but that’s precisely while it should be there, right?
Othello remains one of Shakespeare’s most relevant and popular plays. Though we as a culture like to think we are more civil these days to people who don’t look like ourselves or practice our beliefs, many are not. However, anyone who reduces Othello to simply a play about racism ignores that fact that Iago’s motivations are also based on jealousy. The Seeing Place has explored that by setting the play in modern warfare, with desert camo-clad soldiers carrying pistols and highlighting Othello’s Islamic background. This casts Othello (Ian Moses Eaton) in the unique position of being an Islamic general on the side of the West in the War on Terror.
The production uses minimal set design, with most of it revolving around two rolling road cases, which Iago pulls out his various devices like a magician pulling tricks out of a trunk. The opening scene features Brandon Walker as Iago shouting about the wrongs that Othello has done to him to Roderigo (Daniel Michael Perez), which suggested that this production would be something akin to “Othello and the Angry Iago.” However, Walker’s Iago moves from fuming to conniving, and this boisterous introduction instead suggests the unthinking fury that ultimately undermines his plans.
Though Cassio’s initial fall from grace is predicated on Iago getting him drunk in the original text, the Seeing Place’s production of Othello is thoroughly soaked in booze. Iago spends the first half of the play throwing whiskey back like he’s trying to drown himself, though the effects on him are never apparent. Nonetheless, it suggests that Iago’s plans on taking Othello down – including the obvious flaws – were the result of the plotting of a bitter, angry drunk.
As a character, Desdemona (Erin Cronican) doesn’t really come into her own until the second half of the play. As the Moor’s wife, Cronican dresses in colorful patterns and her hands are covered in henna, indicating that she has absorbed Othello’s culture as her own and deepening her commitment to him. It’s a clever idea because it gives Desdemona a closer connection to her husband, especially in the early acts when she speaks very little.
Naturally, the play’s overall presentation depends on the skills of the actors. The foundation of this production of Othello is build around four very capable actors: Eaton as Othello, Logan Keeler as Cassio, Cronican as Desdemona, and Walker as Iago. In particular, Eaton shows spectacular range portraying Othello from contemplative and somewhat befuddled to a man whose blood is boiling in anger over betrayal.
If you cannot make the Seeing Place’s production of Othello (and I recommend you do), considering helping the company reach its goal of making the Clarion Theatre its permanent home. Despite being in a city as full of stages as New York is, Kips Bay is woefully in need of a company as daring and talented as the Seeing Place is creating art in their neighborhood.
Othello runs at the Clarion Theatre (309 East 26th Street, New York) through March 15. Performances run Tuesday through Sunday. Check out http://www.seeingplacetheater.com for more information. Photo credit: Justin Hoch, JHoch Photography.