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Originally published Friday, July 3, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Rising N.Y. director brings her 'Othello' to Seattle

Arin Arbus's critically hailed mounting of the Shakespeare classic "Othello" is on stage at Seattle's Intiman Theatre, playing now through Aug. 2 at the Seattle Center theater.

Seattle Times theater critic

Theater preview


In previews through Tuesday, opening Wednesday and playing Tuesdays-Sundays through Aug. 2 at Intiman Theatre, Seattle Center; $10-$55 (206-269-1900 or


Arin Arbus, whose staging of Shakespeare's "Othello" is in previews at Intiman Theatre, spent a long time assisting and observing other directors before taking her own shot at mounting a major New York show.

But when the chance came early this year, Arbus seized it. And her sparely adorned, starless rendering of "Othello" was a huge career-booster.

Christopher Isherwood of The New York Times described the stripped-down "Othello" as "gripping" and Arbus as "a star in the making." And the limited run of the Theatre for a New Audience (TNA) show sold out so quickly, it had a two-week encore.

A thoughtful woman of 30 who weighs her words carefully, Arbus seems a bit unnerved by the kudos.

"It's still sort of shocking to me," she says, during a rehearsal break at the Intiman. "I feel so lucky I got a chance to do this big production. They took such a big risk with me."

Not that Arbus was a stranger: She had worked with artistic head Jeffrey Horowitz as Theater for a New Audience's associate artistic director for several years, staged shows Off Off Broadway, and won a 2008 Princess Grace Award for young theater artists.

When Intiman's Bartlett Sher scratched his own plan to direct "Othello" here, he quickly chose the Arbus version as a replacement.

Some of the TNA cast will appear at Intiman. But the three main players are new: Sean Patrick Thomas (known for the film "Save the Last Dance") as the jealous Moor, Othello; Elisabeth Waterston as the doomed wife Desdemona; and John Campion as Iago, the wily agent of Othello's undoing.

Yet the show's style remains the same. "I wanted to create a production that was focused on the actor and the language," Arbus explains.

"To me the most exciting thing about the play is its poetry, and the relationships between these very complicated characters. So we've tried to eliminate anything that gets in the way of that."

It was not lost on Arbus that Shakespeare's take on an African leader gaining power and facing bigotry in a white-dominated society opened soon after Barack Obama became the first black U.S. president.

"The play depicts a society that both promotes diversity, and undermines it," she says. "It's a story filled with hate, racism and misogyny. And that world is recognizable to me."

Beyond bigotry, however, she believes the tale "is either about hate, or about love. And to me it's very much about love.

"I don't want to sound cheesy here, but the love between Desdemona and Othello is massive. If you don't show that, there's really no tragedy. In a kind of mythic way, I think if their relationship endured it could have changed their world ... and that's what is destroyed by Iago."

Arbus hails from a theatrical family. Her father, Allan Arbus, is a retired actor. Her mother, Mariclare Costello, directs and teaches. (Costello is Arbus' second wife; his first marriage, ending in divorce, was to famed photographer Diane Arbus.)

But it was only gradually, after studying visual art, that Arin Arbus chose directing. To learn her craft, she served a self-guided "apprenticeship" assisting such leading directors as the late Gerald Gutierrez and former Seattleite Doug Hughes.

Arbus will mount Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure" for TNA in 2009. And she's continuing her volunteer work with a theater group of male inmates at Woodbourne Correctional Facility, a prison in upstate New York.

"We're not allowed to know anything personal about each other. I don't even know what their crimes were. The strange result is that all the superficial details we generally hang on to in normal life are removed, and we just focus on the work."

She's now developing an original piece with the group. "They're hungry to know themselves and the world more deeply," Arbus says. "That's really, really exciting to me."

Misha Berson:

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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