By: David Sheward
June 23, 2018: The latest entry in the Public Theater’s annual free Shakespeare in Central Park series is a traditional one on the surface, but there are subtle shifts in Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s sturdy staging which give this Othello a modern perspective. Racial issues are not as strongly emphasized as sexual ones and the women emerge as the strongest voices.
The dynamic between the trusting, easily led title character and his deceptive ensign Iago is the usual engine of most productions. Iago’s hateful machinations to drive Othello into a murderous rage over his innocent wife Desdemona are the main propellant of the drama. Othello’s outsider status as a black Moor in white European society underlies Iago’s malice, though he professes his suspicion of his commander as cuckolding him with his spouse Emilia (Desdemona’s lady in waiting) is the main motive. Santiago-Hudson has toned down the edge of the play’s themes of racism by casting several African-American actors in supporting roles including Roderigo, a foolish rival for Desdemona’s affections.
Corey Stoll’s Iago is a tad too light-hearted and comical in his villainy, garnering laughter from the large, outdoor audience as he confesses his treachery in soliloquies. Chukwudi Iwuji’s Othello is properly commanding and passionate, but switches on the anger too abruptly, accelerating into full explosion mood with little transition. Having reached volcano status early in the proceedings, Iwuji only increases in volume and fury. He twists his body like a contortionist, bending it into a knot of rage. Despite these shortcomings, Santiago-Hudson delivers a compelling, straightforward telling of Shakespeare’s tale of jealousy, aided by Rachel Huack’s elegantly simple set, Toni-Leslie James’ rich period costumes, and Jane Cox’s sensitive lighting.
The momentum increases in the second act when Heather Lind’s Desdemona and Alison Wright’s Emilia get more time. In the spirit of the #MeToo movement, Lind gives Desdemona a backbone. Though she submits to her husband’s irrational rantings, this Desdemona does stand up for herself—as much as possible given Shakespeare’s constraints. Likewise, Wright’s Emilia is a fiery advocate for her mistress’ virtue and the rights of all women. Her intense unravelling of her mate’s cunning is the highlight of the evening. But when Emilia is the most interesting character, it’s a lesser Othello.
June 18—23. Free Shakespeare in the Park/Delacorte Theater, 81 Central Park West, NYC. Tue—Sun, 8pm. Running time: three hours including intermission. Free. (212) 967-7555. www.publictheater.org.
Photography: Joan Marcus