Othello at the MET: The Right Kind of Agony

Clifford Reed and Rachel Binder

Actors have to earn our willingness to bleed for a mythical African Muslim soldier of the Fifteenth Century, and these people did it.  'The Moor,' says Iago, 'is of a constant, loving, noble nature.' 

Clifford Reed is warmer and more gentle than any other Othello I've seen, and that made his destruction more emotionally expensive.  By the time I left my seat I had plenty of 'pity and terror' purged out of me and all over the place.  While it does have its sublimities ('my heart is turned to stone; I strike it, and it hurts my hand'), Othello is not the grand rhetorical planetarium of Hamlet or the stoic set piece of Julius Caesar; it's a sticky human mess that shows us how badly we botch life when we insist on our own way.  Tragedy is supposed to frighten us into living better: don't destroy people, don't doubt where you need to believe, and don't break what you can't fix.  Only good acting and direction can get me to shut up and learn something, and that is what happened tonight.

Vincent Cardinale(l.) and Clifford Reed

The spine of the MET's Othello is the young Vincent Cardinale, whose sweet face and easy disposition make for a creepy Iago.  With his shaved head and spindly limbs, and his hatred of the Black man whose gifts he covets, Cardinale's Iago evoked Tim McVeigh.  But it gets worse: Cardinale is loveable, witty, and disarming, not a distant, glassy-eyed monster.  His steely resolve is nowhere on the surface; it runs just underneath all the friendship and discipline and advice he freely dispenses.  In this actor's hands, the audience can't help but join Iago's cause while being utterly revolted by its ethical perversity.  And in the final scene, the wounded villain crawls toward the heap of his victims as if to join the only version of the family bed he can find.  The villain's satanic conduct is as human as the hero's narcissism and the heroine's naivete.

Rachel Binder and Clifford Reed

I had quibbles, but they were small: Reed had some breath control trouble in the first quarter; when Iago and Roderigo mimed the heroic couple's sex and called it 'the beast with two backs,' they weren't in the missionary position to which alone that phrase properly applies; Dawn Davis' generally good Emilia was a little too slow toward the end tonight.  But these are trifles.  All the actors handled the blank verse well, but only Cardinale was totally at home in it.  All in all, I saw a mature company carry off a deeply felt performance. 

Photos by Dawn Davis

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