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The Impenetrable Peter Sellars

October 27, 2011

Peter Sellars is an extremely articulate person. When the theatre director opens his mouth to speak -- and it doesn't matter whether he's discussing the inner workings of the US State Department or an obscure form of tribal dance from Samoa -- you always feel like you are learning something new delivered in a way that's thought-provoking yet approachable.

So how is it that I so often come away from experiencing a stage work by the director without wrinkling my brow, shrugging my shoulders, and uttering "meh"?

This was what happened following last night's performance of Desdemona at Cal Performances. Created in collaboration with the author Toni Morrison and singer-songwriter Rokia Traore, this Sellars-directed riff on the inner-life of the heroine in Shakespeare's Othello is blessed with Morrison's beautiful, crystalline verse delivered by the luminous actress Tina Benko and lilting songs performed by the hushaby-voiced Traore accompanied by a trio of backing singers, a kora player and a n'goni player.

I certainly got a fresh insight into the inner-workings of the character of Desdemona and understood something of the racial and social complexity of the relationship between Desdemona and the people around her. And the production made me see how eternal the power struggles between people of different ethnic and economic backgrounds can be.

Yet as the result of the didactic ending, the opaque staging concept involving assorted clusters of glass vessels, hanging lightbulbs and scattered microphones, and the rambling length of the piece (it goes on for well over two intermissionless hours and could have been at least 30 minutes shorter) I left feeling baffled. And not for the first time, as far as Sellars' work is concerned.

Perhaps I'm too stupid to "get it." Or could it be that the venerable director still needs to work on translating his verbal skills to the stage?


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