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Theatre Review by Howard Miller - June 18, 2018

Alison Wright, Chukwudi Iwuji, and Heather Lind
Photo by Joan Marcus

Director Ruben Santiago-Hudson brings some of our current understandings regarding race and gender to the Public Theater's production of Shakespeare's Othello at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. But purists should have nothing to complain about with respect to the largely traditional three-hour performance. There is none of the extravagant silliness that accompanied last summer's Julius Caesar, with its Donald Trump-as-Caesar gimmick, or the previous year's burlesque-y reinterpretation of The Taming of the Shrew. Both were entertaining in their own way, but, you know, so is straight-up Shakespeare, provided it is in the right hands.

This Othello is decidedly in good hands. It offers up well-delineated characters whose dialog is cleanly delivered and whose actions are readily comprehensible. By stripping away any fussiness in the production (both Rachel Hauck's set design and Toni-Leslie James' costumes are appropriately more functional than showy), Santiago-Hudson invites us to focus on the interactions and on Shakespeare's language.

As the benighted Moor of Venice, Chukwudi Iwuji gives a fine performance, although, atypically, his Othello comes off as more of a bureaucrat than a warrior. He stands apart from the others by emoting his lines with more formal cadences that emphasize the poetry of the language, even unto the very end when he asks to be remembered as one who "loved not wisely but too well," a lovely bit of poetics but not exactly defensible, given that he has just murdered his wife. In the ill-fated role of Desdemona, Heather Lind gives her a confident and independent air, at least as long as she has Othello's trust. Once that is gone, she accepts her lot almost as if it had been preordained. Indeed, the couple at the center are portrayed with the near-mythic inevitability of their roles.

By way of contrast, Corey Stoll's Iago speaks in a more straightforward and conversational way that resonates well with contemporary ears. We may not like him (nor should we), but he does seem more familiar to us, like a rogue politician who is adroit at framing his arguments and astute at winnowing out and taking advantage of others' weaknesses. In speeches directed at the audience, he lays out his self-justified grounds for plotting to bring Othello down. He is fuming that Othello passed him over for promotion in favor of Michael Cassio (Babak Tafti), whom Iago brushes off as a mere accountant. He also hates that his stymied military career still requires him to maintain a professionally cordial relationship with those he sees as inferior. Finally, he offers up a more personal rationale for his behavior when, on more than one occasion, he mentions his suspicions that Othello has had a sexual relationship with Iago's wife Emilia (Alison Wright).

Even though Emilia's role is a relatively small one, in Ms. Wright's performance she emerges as perhaps the play's bravest soul, speaking truth to power as she confronts both Othello and Iago and blasts their masculine certitude into smithereens in a magnificently-delivered speech near the end of the play. Told to "hold your peace" by her husband, she lets a room full of men know, "Let heaven and men and devils all cry shame against me, yet I'll speak!" This is a truly compelling moment, and Ms. Wright handles it exquisitely.

In addition to bringing out the psychological underpinnings of his characters, Santiago-Hudson heightens the contemporary feel by emphasizing the play's racism, so much so that the audience at the performance I attended gasped aloud on a couple of occasions. The first of these comes early in the play when Iago goads Desdemona's father, Brabantio (Miguel Perez), into going after Othello after he and Desdemona have eloped without Brabantio's knowledge or blessing: "Zounds, sir, you're robbed," insists Iago. "Even now an old black ram is tupping your white ewe." The words are Shakespeare's, but the delivery belongs to Stoll and the director, while the impact of these and other similarly racist lines throughout the play are ours to interpret and, yes, gasp over.

I do confess to missing a more muscular squaring off between Iago and Othello, as seen, for example, in last year's military-themed performance at the New York Theatre Workshop that pitted Daniel Craig against David Oyelowo. There, Craig's Iago had to work extra hard to trip up a formidable opponent, while here it seems his targets are sitting ducks, rather too easily manipulated. Yet, all told, this is a well-mounted production that provides a solid psychological foundation to Iago, who is too often seen as the embodiment of self-propelled evil rather than as all-too-human. Something to think about when contemplating the next set of hoodwinking Tweetstorms intended to reshape your worldview.

Through June 24
Delacorte Theater in Central Park
Free tickets are available for every public performance. Information on how to access free tickets