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Photograph: Armin Bardel

Director Peter Sellars talks postracial Othello

Conceptual director Peter Sellars colors between lines with his new production

By David Cote
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Watch out, Shakespeare purists: Peter Sellars is back in town. The wildly conceptual director might be a Euro-American icon from decades of staging opera and theater, but he still deconstructs classics with the avant-garde glee of a postgrad. Now the ageless enfant terrible, 51, is applying his multicultural, free-interpretation approach to Othello. The Public Theater production (workshopped this summer in Austria and Germany) features actors from the LAByrinth Theater Company, as well as modern dress, video screens and—most surprising—a radical shuffling of the tragedy’s racial profile. Ticket buyers might think they’re getting to see Philip Seymour Hoffman play the deliciously evil Iago and John Ortiz take on the murderously jealous title character. But they’re getting much more: a roiling, postracial Othello. TONY sat down with the affectionate, loquacious and high-energy Sellars at the Public Theater’s offices.

Is this Othello as Obama? Knowing you, it’s going to be topical.
What was so cool about coming back from Germany was, you know, it was exquisitely produced there, but there was not a black person for miles about. For audiences there, it was slightly abstract. But then we come back to America to see posters of Obama with a Hitler mustache; the Sotomayor hearings, with these truly ignorant men talking to this Princeton graduate as if she had no idea; and the Skip Gates arrest provoking all this stuff—too many people don’t have the language!

To discuss race?
To talk about this stuff in a more sophisticated way than what is happening on talk radio. And Shakespeare does have the language. The last time I did Shakespeare was a Merchant of Venice coming off the 1992 Los Angeles uprising, where the city I lived in was on fire; there were U.S. tanks going down the streets. John Ortiz and Phil Hoffman actually met in that production.

So do we have you to thank for the creation of LAByrinth—one of the hottest troupes in the city?
LAByrinth already existed, but later John invited Phil to join. In my Merchant, the Jews were African-Americans, Portia and all her friends were wealthy Latinos living in Bel Air, the Venetians were wealthy Asians, so you got this weird dynamic. And the really hard-core, low-life, working-class racist was Launcelot Gobbo, which Phil did really well. [Laughs]

So you’re typecasting him—now he’s the racist psycho Iago. But the Duke here is black?
In the middle of casting, I realized, Oh right, the President is black, and he’s the youngest guy in the world! So I had to cast the Duke as the youngest guy in the cast. Because now, power is working the opposite way, and that shifts all the power relationships. The Duke is the young black man.

You’re creating a new racial reality.
We’re in a different situation. As the play is usually shown, Othello is an isolated black man in a white world. And that’s just not the reality right now. Of the eight people onstage, three are Latino, three are African-American and two are white. When Othello is the only black man onstage, he symbolizes all these things. The minute his role isn’t symbolic, he’s human. You can’t say, “Oh, there’s the black guy.” It’s like, “What’s he saying? What’s he doing?” And you have to really listen to and look at the role differently.

You also decided to create a real affair between Othello and Iago’s wife, Amelia.
Yes! Suddenly, it’s totally human. It’s not abstract and celestial. And you see that Othello also mentions it, and that’s the shock. That’s Shakespeare’s point: Iago is not crazy, not paranoid, not insane. He’s human. And his best friend is having an affair with his wife. And so it creates this tension that is unbearable and finally, of course, explodes. Because violence is all about what can’t be talked about.

On to the physical production: modern dress, video screens, a highly militarized world.
Shakespeare puts it in this military context—with all these lieutenants and generals; everybody is somebody’s assistant. Everybody is a proxy. So he has this seething universe already going on, and the minute you take those relationships seriously, the play steps into this universe of sex and craving and power. You mix the race stuff in, and it’s popping.

And those LAByrinth actors know how to pop.
Watching them chew on Shakespeare is thrilling. They do the language in their own rhythms, with their own kind of warmth and musicality and danger. LAB actors are so used to danger. They turn the heat up, and you get to this place that burns. It is so hot in that kitchen! It’s a far cry from Laurence Olivier and a couple of other people who are stars—and then you can’t remember who anyone else was.

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