A Contemporary, Culpable Desdemona 

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William Shakespeare’s Othello has long been considered one of his more timeless creations–a careful case study of war, racism and the intense fog of love that can lead sane men into passionate fits of jealousy, betrayal and vengeance.

Reenvisioned for a thoroughly modern staging by the Public Theater and LAByrinth Theater Company, in association with Wiener Festwochen, Vienna and Schauspielhaus Bochum, Othello returns with a limited series of performances scheduled at NYU’s Skirball Center through October 4, starring John Ortiz as Othello, Philip Seymour Hoffman as Iago and Jessica Chastain as Desdemona–the wife who finds herself caught in the crossfire between two men jockeying for power in the upper echelons of the Venetian army.

The L Magazine spoke recently with Chastain, about updating Othello for a 2009 audience, working alongside the likes of Hoffman and Ortiz, and what it’s like to perform while lying on a bed made out of plasma television screens.

The L Magazine: Looking at all the movies you’ve been working on, you’ve just come away from collaborating with some serious cinematic heavyweights: Working with Al Pacino in Salomaybe? and John Madden in The Debt and Terrence Malick in The Tree of Life. Was it a big adjustment to go back to the stage?

Jessica Chastain: I’ve been craving to do a play again. I haven’t been on stage in three years and that was all I used to do. My Juilliard training was mostly in theater, and so when I finished working with John Madden, out in the middle of the night and doing all these nighttime action sequences, I came home to California just exhausted. But then I heard about this project–one of the greatest plays that Shakespeare ever wrote and the chance to work with Peter Sellars and Philip Seymour Hoffman and John Ortiz–and it was sort of a no-brainer.

Obviously you have a strong affection for this play–but what is it specifically about the part of Desdemona that you find so captivating?

What I think is most beautiful about this character is that she’s the embodiment of ultimate love, and ultimate forgiveness. She is all about seeing the good in people and always trying to find a way to excuse the bad and forgive people, and asking herself: Why is someone behaving like this? When you play someone like that, it can’t help but teach you a little bit about your own life, and so in that way I feel really fortunate that I’ve had the chance to play someone so great and beautiful. I show up every night and I feel like I’m doing a lovely story between Othello and Desdemona–I think all of us see the story a little bit differently, but for me it’s really this profound story of unconditional love.
click to enlarge Othello at the Public Theater

So what’s it like to come to work every day and fall in love over and over again with John Ortiz?

Oh he’s just fantastic, whether you see him on the stage or in films like American Gangster. I’ve always wanted to work with him, because whenever you see something he’s in, he has this way of seeming so in the moment, almost out of control with his emotions. You’re watching him and it truly doesn’t seem like a performance, you almost get this feeling that he doesn’t know what’s going to happen, that he’s so lost in the scene. And working with him, that feeling only gets reinforced, you’re in a scene with him and he’s so into it, the emotions run through his veins. And yet he’s always open to trying something new; Peter [Sellars] will suggest trying something new, and John will just throw himself completely into it, giving the director 1,000 percent without any judgment. He’s willing to try anything. He’s pretty brave that way.

It sounds like this is a distinctly modern version of Othello, which has all of you trying some new things. What has it been like to reinvent a classic?

I studied Othello at Juilliard and I’ve seen it many at times at festivals, and I thought: Okay, I know the story. But Peter Sellars’s Othello is so different from what I thought I knew about it. This has a completely different take on the story. Here, everyone’s is to blame. It’s not that Iago’s bad and Desdemona’s good. Everyone truly takes part in the murder that occurs, and it’s kind of beautiful in what it has to say about humans, that in a society everyone has to take responsibility for their actions. It’s not just about one man holding another’s puppet strings, but about how we all participate and play a part.

Have you had to re-learn Desdemona?

Any preconceived ideas I might have had, about what I was to play, they were gone after about five seconds of rehearsals. Peter wanted to push this somewhere new, and there were times when I was like: I don’t know how to get there. So this experience has really been about pushing a square peg through a round hole, and figuring it out and then letting go and accepting that Peter’s already done all the hard work–of how it should be–and that you just need to find a way to living it out. From the first day it was a trip, because he revealed to me that most of my action would take place on top of 50 plasma television screens at the center of the stage. The bed is the television screens. And then he started incorporating cell phones and all these other devices. Every time I’ve seen Shakespeare it’s been very traditional, or its been kind of modernized, with guns blaring or something–sort of halfway modernized. But this is a complete rethinking of a play, and it’s such a gift to be part of it.

What’s it been like to work on something so different and unique with Philip Seymour Hoffman?

Just watching him work, it’s stunning. I honestly don’t know how an audience could vilify his Iago; it’s going to shock people. This is a play where you really don’t know who’s to blame, and Iago is so compassionate and loving at times, and absolutely has a conscience, that it makes him so much more human. He’s not this genius murderer, and that’s the sort of thing that will really surprise people. This production’s so fluid that moments seem to change every time we do them, and yet they’re always truthful and human.

It’s weird because you don’t typically think of that with Shakespeare. You get so caught up in the meter and the structure that performances often stick close to the text. But in working with Peter he doesn’t want it to be simply technical. He demands something emotional and truthful, he wants to explore that moment. I’ve never worked on anything like this.

(Photo credit: Armin Bardel)

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