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Philip Seymour Hoffman shines in "Othello"

Saidah Arrika Ekulona and Philip Seymour Hoffman in

Saidah Arrika Ekulona and Philip Seymour Hoffman in a scene from The Public Theater and LAByrinth Theater Company production of Shakespeare's "Othello," directed by Peter Sellars, running through October 4, 2009 at NYU Skirball Center in New York City.

There is a stripped-down, stark intelligence at work in Peter Sellars' updated Washington rethinking of "Othello," which boasts an unsettling, altogether captivating anti-star turn by Philip Seymour Hoffman as Iago to John Ortiz's slick and confident Moor.

Alas, by the time the project has rethought Shakespeare's tragedy and rethought the rethinking, four hours have passed more as a lengthy psycho-political exercise than a full-blown adventure.

At this late date, surely, no one is shocked if Othello and Desdemona make love on a bed of TV screens, or if intrigues are hatched on BlackBerrys, or if Roderigo is a sulky cokehead. Clearly, Sellars - whose provocative career has been unfairly kept outside the conservative barriers of New York theater - is after more than yesterday's gimmicks here.

The willful soul of this eight-actor, multiethnic staging - a coproduction of The Public Theater and Hoffman's base at the LAByrinth theater - challenges the very essence of what we know as a play about racial outsider-ness and the manipulation of power through jealousy. If the American President, formerly the Duke of Venice, is black and Othello's rival Cassio (Leroy McClain) is black, can race be the point at all? In contrast, Ortiz's lighter-skinned Othello is Hispanic, as is Iago's strangely mystical wife Emilia (Liza-Colón-Zayas), while three characters are conflated into one high-ranking black female officer (Saidah Arrika Ekulona).

And forget the part about Othello killing Desdemona (the lyrical Jessica Chastain) for misplaced jealousy. Just about everyone has had, is having, or may well have sex with everyone else. Moral blacks and whites are as shaded as skin color. In other words, Sellars tries to solve the inherent problems of "Othello" by making it a play about something else - a rehearsal-hall meditation on mutual culpability in the post-Bush, supposedly post-racial Obama world.

If the actors were as fascinating as Hoffman, we would have less time to question the concept. Instead of a silky manipulator, this Iago wears the mask of ordinariness. Instead of the military and business suits of his society, he clomps around - hands in his pockets and inscrutable sleepiness on his face - making mischief as a tubby guy in a green polo and sloppy black chinos. It could be easy to overlook this man. Hoffman makes that truly dangerous.

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