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Desdemona—Peter Sellars’ retelling of Othello

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“My name is Desdemona. The word, Desdemona, means misery. It means ill-fated. It means doomed.” And so begins the intimate exchange between specters and spectators in Desdemona, Peter Sellars’ (Nixon in China) glorious adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello, told from the perspective of his wife’s ghost. With text by Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison and music by the celebrated Malian singer/composer, Rokia Traoré, the departure from the original is striking in its austerity but no less complex.

The enchanting and haunting Tina Benko in the titular role, staged alongside Traoré as Desdemona’s nurse, Barbary, these are women to whom Shakespeare gave no real voice. The duo more than make up for their enforced silence here. Musical accompaniment, featuring Malian musicians Mamah Diabaté, Mamadyba Camara, and singers Fatim Kouyaté, Kadiatou Sangaré, and Bintou Soumbounou, works as a third character, providing running commentary about love and loss, spirits in the material world, and the uncompromising choices made in the act of self-preservation.

Desdemona was created, as most good collaborations are, in the face of conflict. Sellars and Morrison took a friendly argument about Othello (Sellars thought the play’s thinness was not worth producing, while Morrison felt the often uninspired productions of the play were the real problem) and churned that energy into this collaborative new work. The audience hears, for the first time, stories Othello told his betrothed, the tales that made her fall in love with him. We are also introduced to Barbary, the woman who raised Desdemona and most likely shaped her open-mindedness towards the Moorish general and his world. This minor character in Shakespeare’s piece is only mentioned, never introduced. Morrison and Traoré delight in bringing Barbary to life, in song as well as spoken word. The word “barbary,” referring to a region in northern Africa is not really the name for Desdemona’s beloved nurse, it is a nickname, a shorthand. Barbary is not really a person as much as a function in Desdemona’s life and the play dissects this tenuous relationship as well.

Benko soars in her role as Desdemona, embodying her complexity with vigor and tenaciousness; every word that falls from Benko’s lips is electric. Morrison’s text is a loaded one, a lyrical prose that also scrolls down a screen behind the stage while being recited. It begs to be examined in multi-texturally: To hear it is not enough, it needs to be read as well. There’s a frankness of tone that speaks to Desdemona’s struggles to accept her place in society. She’s an anomaly and she knows it. Here, she is presented with an opportunity to explain herself, to express her love for her husband, and to forgive him in their afterlife for murdering her so mercilessly.

Desdemona is a riveting, nuanced performance. It would be nearly impossible to execute without the talented and skilled Peter Sellars at the reins. Known for his experimental (and not always successful) theater, his careful direction creates a stunning re-examination of one of Shakespeare’s most problematic tragedies. The stage work is flawless; the performers are compelling and engaged with the material and Sellars has proven himself to be on the wrong side of his own argument. Through Desdemona, Othello rises out of ash and lives again in the theater, full-bodied and completely regenerative. Nothing thin about any of that.

Top four photos by Peter DaSilva, bottom photo by Ruth Walz.

Desdemona was performed as part of the White Light Festival at Lincoln Center. For information on more events in the series, which runs until November 19, 2011, please visit www.whitelightfestival.org.

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