No rude antics corrupt this Othello, the opening presentation of the Public Theater’s Free Shakespeare in the Park series at the Delacorte. We will not see a Trump avatar bloodily murdered, as in last season’s harrumphing Julius Caesar, which sparked grave consternation from the right and cowardly denunciation from corporate sponsors for what was, in the end, a labored joke in a witless production. Ruben Santiago-Hudson is a deeply thoughtful and meticulous director, and a thoughtful, precise reading (of what playwright Paula Vogel, in her merciless satire, Desdemona, cunningly sub-dubbed “a play about a handkerchief”) is richly on display.
Shakespeare productions come in roughly two flavors: trendily updated (as in Sam Gold’s Drake-accompanied army-barracks staging of Othello, two years ago for the New York Theater Workshop, with David Oyelowo and Daniel Craig) and traditional, on offer here. Don’t expect Venice Beach standing in for 17th-century Venice. (Rachel Hauck’s Piazza San Marco set and Toni-Leslie James’ luxuriant, summer-defying costumes assure us of that). And don’t anticipate any #MeToo hints laid on to make Shakespeare’s tragedy relevant. We must take him at his words.
In the leading roles, Ruben-Santiago cast the elegant and classically trained Chukwudi Iwuji in the title role and the near ubiquitous Corey Stoll as the triumphant general’s piqued ensign, Iago, displeased at being overlooked for a promotion and hellbent on revenge. Heather Lind is the doomed Desdemona, and Alison Wright, a graduate of The Americans who has blossomed in recent seasons on stage, plays Iago’s wife and unwitting accomplice, Emilia. They are all exceptionally good, even if at times they seem to be working in different productions – or one in which enunciation has ranked ahead of connection, passion and several other human attributes necessary if Othello has any hope of reaching an audience that may be dubious of the tragedy’s sexual politics and skeptical of its psychology.
Best among these equals is Stoll, who plays Iago not as a mustache-twirling villain but more as a Shakespearian confidence artist in the manner of Richard III, enjoining the audience in a conspiracy of improvised machinations that will bring about ruin. Unlike the disfigured king, however, whose goal is power, Iago’s design is pure undoing.
“I am not what I am,” Iago famously avers, which can be interpreted as an admission that his objective is not the self-advancement typical of an overlooked loyal attendant, but unadulterated malign destruction. It’s closer to the rage of a spurned lover – a possibility Stoll flirts with in the chilling monologues in which Iago repeatedly expresses his creed regarding a God-free universe. (Stoll is more overtly sinister as the predatory novelist Trigorin in Michael Mayer’s new film adaptation of The Seagull.)
Santiago-Hudson encourages that interpretation through Iwuji’s mostly bloodless portrayal of Othello. Physically beautiful and less imposing than we might expect in the role, this is a general more secure in his image as conquering hero than in his actual physical being. And so the actor is prone to posing, the better for adulation, whether by the crowds welcoming him home from battle or the adoring wife whose father can only guess that the Moor has somehow worked charms to enchant her into matrimony. Only in the murder scene do husband and wife connect, by which time it is too late for us. We can’t feel the horror of the situation, because this preening commander has seemed hollow, his professed love for Desdemona as much for show as the rest of his shtick.
“I peace?” Emilia exclaims, thwarting her husband's ambition though it will cost her her own life. “No, I will speak as liberal as the north. Let heaven and men and devils, let them all, all, all, cry shame against me, yet I’ll speak.” And speak Emilia does, letting her rage-flag fly. Othello may not be anyone’s first choice for a lovely summer evening in Central Park, but here, at least and at long last was wrath unfurled, necessary and cleansing, and needing nothing of updating to hit its mark.