(l to r) Corey Stoll and Chukwudi Iwuji in ‘Othello.’ (Photo: Joan Marcus)
Can you kill someone with a bear hug? Apparently so, if you’re a modestly sized Othello wrought with rage. It’s in this awkward moment of the Public Theater’s Free Shakespeare in the Park production that Chukwudi Iwuji as the Bard’s namesake Moor grips his wife Desdemona (Heather Lind) in a climatic fit of jealousy—literally squeezing the life out of her. Unfortunately, for the audience, that happens much earlier in director Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s flat production.
The Public found itself under serious scrutiny last summer when its Trump-era production of Julius Caesar raised corporate eyebrows, ultimately resulting in funding cuts from Bank of America and Delta Air Lines. The former returns this year as a lead sponsor, but you can’t help but wonder what sort of effect those circumstances had on Othello. That’s not to say that The Public should necessarily catapult the 15th-century work into modern times, but I do believe as a theater of the people and for the people, it’s an opportunity to explore the play’s themes of racial tension, political deceit, and female suppression.
Recently married Othello, a general in the Venetian army, has overlooked Iago (Corey Stoll) for promotion, instead, naming Michael Cassio (Babak Tafti) as his lieutenant. This sets about a series of events by which Iago aims to destroy Othello through piquing his jealousy. Iago’s actions, as played by the go-for-the-laugh Stoll, appear mischievous at first but eventually dissolve into malice and, eventually, murder. At a critical juncture, a bit of circumstantial fortune comes into play when Iago’s wife Emilia (Alison Wright) discovers Desdemona’s lost handkerchief and turns it over to her husband, which he uses as a planted object to prove the non-existent affair between Desdemona and Cassio, thus sending Othello into that fateful, final fury.
In the program notes, The Public Theater’s Artistic Director Oscar Eustis raises some valid questions about the role of race, asking what role does otherness play in the tragedy and how central is race to the events of the play. In this production, not much. Instead, Hudson’s direction gives freedom to the acting company’s interpretation of the text, failing to reel them into a cohesive ensemble embodying the same world of the play.
Stoll’s Iago—intellectual, coy, and even campy at times—displays an intelligently technical interpretation of Shakespeare’s text but doesn’t answer the age-old question: what jealousies drive this man to destroy the lives of everyone around him? Iwuji finds more of an organic arc in Othello’s turn from skepticism to insanity. With passable charm, he lacks the deep vocal resonance of predecessor James Earl Jones (1964) but finds a seductive sparring partner in Lind’s Desdemona. With a subtle lilt to her delivery and beautifully costumed by Toni-Leslie James in gold and silver brocade and ruby jewels strewn about her neck as if to foreshadow her demise, she holds steadfast to her optimism and marital love nearly to her dying breath. But it is Wright as Iago’s manipulated wife and Desdemona’s lady-in-waiting that unearths the play’s dark themes. An unknowing accomplice to her husband’s malicious plan, Emilia eventually bears witness—and loses her life—to a world driven by hearsay and trickery.
Rachel Hauck’s neutral set design—a series of neutral Venetian Gothic arches—does little to enhance or hinder the production, though composer Derek Wieland’s score, recorded on what sounds like an entry-level synthesizer, distracts from the slowly building gravitas. Jane Cox’s lighting avoids the dramatic as does Thomas Schall’s fight direction. And while entrances and exits move at a brisk pace, there’s an overarching sense of stagnancy beyond the expected hot and humid summer night in New York City.
After a polite curtain call that surged upon Wright’s bow, my companion and I strolled through Central Park, discussing race, politics, and the relevance of Shakespeare in today’s theatrical landscape. We had both craved an Othello that spoke to the 21st century. Not necessarily in costume or period, but in context. We wondered if many of us in the nation today feel as if we are the Moor. No matter how we measure our successes, do we believe because of our race, gender, sexual orientation, age or disability that we are somehow “less than”? And who is at the ready to capitalize on our vulnerabilities? I don’t believe this production addressed these ponderings, but Shakespeare’s play, now more than 400 years old, is still capable of eliciting a reaction that begs us to define our ability to trust and have faith in humankind.
The Public Theater Free Shakespeare in the Park
Through June 24
Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor. Read more of his work at wexlerwrites.com.