A Cool-Tempered ‘Othello’ for Warm Central Park Nights
Posted June 18, 2018 11:54 p.m. EDT
NEW YORK — Watching the Public Theater’s new “Othello” is like being on a blind date that, while perfectly pleasant, is never going to ignite into passion. Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s elegantly staged production, which opened Monday night at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, is good-looking, well-spoken and intelligent, as easy on the ears as it is on the eyes.
But you know that you’re not going to be dreaming about it later, or wishing that you could see it again. It’s a picturesque, nicely paced show that engages without enthralling or unsettling.
If the weather is fine — and it was blissful on the night I was there — that may be all you require for an agreeable evening of Shakespeare in the Park. Theatergoers fearing (or hoping for) a repeat of last year’s headline-making seasonal opener, an incendiary interpretation of “Julius Caesar” that presented its title character as a ringer for Donald Trump, will be relieved (or disappointed).
Starring Chukwudi Iwuji as Othello and Corey Stoll as his nemesis, Iago, this summer’s first offering (“Twelfth Night” follows in July) has few visibly political bones in its smooth body. Its taut tale of the ravaging effects of jealousy has not been intrusively styled, as so many productions of Shakespeare are today, in a mode of searing contemporary relevance.
Toni-Leslie James’ ravishing Elizabethan costumes and Derek Wieland’s orchestral music might have done double duty for an episode of Showtime’s “The Tudors.” And the usually dominating fact of the Moor of Venice being a foreigner, a dark-skinned alien in a white European society, has been qualified by the use of colorblind casting throughout.
Indeed, I have never seen another “Othello” in which the playing field feels so level for all its characters. Each of these — down to the smallest part — is embodied with comprehension and confidence by an unusually well-balanced ensemble.
Yet for any interpretation of this tightly drawn work to fulfill the play’s deepest intentions, it must be above all a double portrait of its incandescently noble leading man and its equally extraordinary villain. And while Iwuji and Stoll turn in crisp and lucid performances as the great general Othello and his envious ensign Iago, they don’t really stand out in a talented crowd.
And if you want “Othello” to register as a tragedy, instead of a melodrama, this is a problem.
Iwuji, a frequent and pleasing presence on New York and London stages, is a compactly handsome man with an intellectual nimbleness and romantic mien that would serve him well as, perhaps, Romeo or even Hamlet. When Iago describes Othello as “defective” in the “years, manners and beauties” that might appeal to a young woman, you think, “Au contraire, dishonest Iago.”
What Iwuji lacks is the looming, born-to-command majesty that has made Othello an all-conquering military hero and the successful suitor of the highly covetable Desdemona (a very good Heather Lind), his new bride. Iwuji conveys passion credibly but not elementally. (He also has the misfortune to be competing with the recent memory of David Oyelowo in the same part, opposite Daniel Craig, at the New York Theater Workshop in 2016.)
If Iwuji is your first Othello, you may not entirely buy his getting fatally worked up over Iago’s planting of false evidence about Desdemona’s alleged infidelity. When speaking of Desdemona, Othello declares that “when I love thee not/Chaos is come again,” it’s with a cerebral self-awareness that blunts the prophecy’s grim threat.
Stoll, a fine Brutus in last summer’s notorious “Julius Caesar,” is not quite the evil genius Iago must be. Whether explaining his dastardly plans to the audience or whispering sweet poison into Othello’s ear, this Iago’s manner is usually jocular and expository.
Until the very end, when he loses his smiling cool, he comes across less as a supersmart psychopath than a riled-up good old boy. And when at the first half’s conclusion, he tells Othello, “I am your own forever,” that terrifying, double-edged pledge of loyalty lands with muffled impact. The tableaulike staging here, as Iago kneels before his commander, brings to mind Lancelot and Arthur in “Camelot.”
In terms of clarity and pace, it’s hard to fault the direction of Santiago-Hudson, who oversaw last year’s splendid, Tony-winning revival of August Wilson’s “Jitney.” The show’s pageantry — enhanced by Rachel Hauck’s stately set, Jane Cox’s strategic lighting and Jessica Paz’s stealthy sound design — never eclipses its exceptional legibility of story and character.
Every crucial plot point is neatly but never disproportionately highlighted. For once, you are unlikely to confuse any of the supporting characters, and some of these roles are as well drawn as any I’ve seen.
Relative newcomer Babak Tafti gives a terrific, breakout performance as Cassio, Othello’s lieutenant and Iago’s bane. He brims with the untidy passion of a decent but ambitious young man who has not yet learned to control his emotions. His drunk scene in Cyprus (orchestrated by Iago) is heartbreaking; so is his abject contrition afterward.
It is also a pleasure to see a Desdemona so full of verve and increasing, chin-raising indignation. Lind has given us an unblushing bride who appreciates her own worth.
Though Desdemona’s love for her Othello is never in doubt, she also exudes the confidence of knowing she could have had any eligible bachelor in Venice. Lind is well matched by Alison Wright’s shrewd Emilia, Desdemona’s handmaiden and Iago’s wife, who has a will as sharp as her acerbic tongue.
I’ve said that this is a largely apolitical “Othello,” but its female characters — who also include Flor de Liz Perez’s tempestuous Bianca the courtesan — have been conceived with an awakening sense of independence most welcome in the summer of #MeToo. (It feels appropriate that the principal design team is all-female.)
Desdemona’s and Emilia’s discussion toward the end about the foibles of men has seldom felt wittier or more on point. I assume it’s not a spoiler to reveal that Desdemona will soon after be murdered by her husband. But for once, thank heaven, she does not die as a doormat.
Through Sunday at the Delacorte Theater, Manhattan; 212-539-8500, publictheater.org. Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes.
By William Shakespeare; directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson; sets by Rachel Hauck; costumes by Toni-Leslie James; lighting by Jane Cox; sound by Jessica Paz; hair and wigs by Matthew B. Armentrout; composer, Derek Wieland; fight director, Thomas Schall; movement director, Adesola Osakalumi; production stage manager, James Latus; stage manager, Rachel A. Zucker; general manager, Jeremy Adams. Presented by the Public Theater, Oskar Eustis, artistic director, Patrick Willingham, executive director.
Cast: Peter Jay Fernandez (Duke of Venice), Motell Foster (Roderigo), Andrew Hovelson (Lodovico), Chukwudi Iwuji (Othello), Heather Lind (Desdemona), Flor De Liz Perez (Bianca), Miguel Perez (Brabantio), Thomas Schall (Montano), Corey Stoll (Iago), Babak Tafti (Cassio), Peter Van Wagner (Gratiano) and Alison Wright (Emilia).