In the tussle between going to a sold-out pop concert and inviting a lone violinist to play Mozart in your living room, New Place Players’ “Othello” skews heavily toward the latter. Performed in Casa Clara, a rustic 1848 loft space on a leafy stretch of Manhattan’s East 25th Street, the show accommodates only about 50 audience members, and each member is rarely more than a few feet from the action. The word that keeps coming to mind is “intimate.” Casa Clara, originally a sculpture foundry, can hardly be described as a modern theater, and it infuses the performing arts it hosts with an air of quaint familiarity, like we’re listening in on conversations that are both very real and very timeless. It’s pretty cool.
Shakespeare’s grand tragedy follows the villainous Iago’s schemes to undermine the marriage of Othello, Moorish military commander in the Venetian army, and Desdemona, daughter of Venetian royalty who married the titular Othello against her father’s will. Iago schemes to spark jealousy in the originally happy marriage, and succeeds with disastrous consequences in this play that explores themes of race, community and relationships in ways that remain highly relevant today.
Conor Andrew Hall shines as the malevolent Iago, exuding sycophantic charm in public and burning envy when the cameras are off. Elliot Johnson infuses the wronged Othello with a solemn dignity, and Alanah Allen builds the character of Desdemona with a potent if unyielding pathos and vigor. An anomaly in this otherwise highly traditional production is the addition of chamber music, with a harp and other instruments accompanying most scenes to varying effect.
The true star, however, is Casa Clara. The humble arena reeks of history and forces watcher and player up against each other such that all are part of the action. It precludes any real set and allows for only minimal props, leaving just the dozen-strong cast to act and the 50-odd spectators to listen. To me, it’s these elements that so effectively link this 21st century production and its 16th century ancestor – it’s modern theater in the round. An information-age retreat into Shakespeare’s own Globe Theater, where an audience surrounded a simple stage and actors simply acted.
When the lights go down, you almost feel you’re watching the original 1603 “Othello,” throwing the occasional tomato at the performers but mostly falling in love with a story that would captivate audiences for the next five centuries and beyond.
Othello is playing through March 25. Find tickets and more information at NewPlacePlayers.org.