As written, Shakespeare’s tragedy is the story of an outsider, Othello, a Moor or Arab from North Africa who has risen to the position of general in the Venetian army. Although he is esteemed as an officer and a strategist, in 17th century Venice prejudice and racism runs deep and he is an object of scorn, referred to often by his skin color, rather than his rank. When he elopes with the very white Desdemona, daughter of the Venetian senator Brabantio, a hue and cry is raised as to whether he kidnapped her and has enchanted her, or whether she married him of her own free will. Her appearance before the Doge of Venice (here called the Duke) puts an end to the question as to whether she chose him willingly, but she is rejected by her prejudiced father who washes his hands of her.
An imminent attack by the Turkish fleet causes the Senate to send the newly wed Othello to the island of Cyprus, where his wife chooses to go with him. When Othello chooses officer Michael Cassio as his lieutenant, he infuriates Ensign Iago who also believes that he may have slept with his wife Emilia though he has no evidence. Iago vows to destroy the naively susceptible Othello who obviously has own doubts about why Desdemona chose him over the Venetian nobles. Iago spends the rest of the play planting lies in Othello’s mind and fueling his jealousy. As Cassio and Desdemona grew up together and he is viewed as a handsome man with a smooth manner, the sort of suitor one would have expected her to marry, Othello is predisposed to suspect him of evil intentions towards his wife. Iago also ensnares Roderigo, a rejected suitor of Desdemona, in a plot to gain her for him once she grows tired of the Moor.
In the recent Metropolitan Opera production of Verdi’s Otello, Otello was white which left no reason for his jealousy if he was identical to all the Venetians around him. In the current Shakespeare in the Park production, using color blind casting, Santiago-Hudson chooses to make at least five of the leading characters people of color so that Othello is no longer an outsider, nor are they. The meaning of the theme is diluted in such a reading. It may be politically correct, but in this play about race there is no getting away from its original meaning. Even The Public Theater’s artistic director Oskar Eustis’ program notes remark that Othello is only one of two explicitly black characters in all of Shakespeare, the other appearing in Titus Andronicus. Other than this casting choice, the production offers no new interpretation of the play or characters, making it more like a staged reading than a full production.
Visually the depiction of 17th century Venice and Cyprus is quite elegant with beautiful costumes in gold, black and white by Toni-Leslie James and a series of graceful white stone archways designed by Rachel Hauck. However, as neither the costumes nor the set is changed in the course of the three hour running time, it becomes a bit tedious watch the same stage picture all evening. The last scene has been decidedly altered with the final speech cut, and the staging is rather ineffective. From the lighting by Jane Cox, it is difficult to conclude whether the Cyprus section (Acts II – V) all take place in one day or not.
Director Santiago-Hudson says in an interview published in the program that he wanted to restore the play to its hero Othello, rather than its villain Iago, which is usually the case. Even with such a titanic actor as James Earl Jones in the title role in the legendary 1982 Broadway staging, it was Christopher Plummer as Iago who impressed enough to go home with the Drama Desk Award and the Tony nomination for Outstanding Actor in a Play. Unfortunately, Santiago-Hudson has not succeeded in reestablishing this new balance. Chudwudi Iwuji’s Moor is too low-key, too gentlemanly, too soft-spoken to dominate the play. And physically, Iwuji is smaller in stature than the Iago of Corey Stoll who seems to tower over him when they are standing side by side. Though there is chemistry between him and his Dedemona, he is never demonstrative enough to make us believe the passion between them. His Othello is never big enough to dominate the play that he is in.
Usually played as a total psychopath and the theater’s greatest villain, Corey Stoll (Brutus, 2017; Ulysses, 2016) plays Iago as a con-artist who enjoys toying with people and playing games. Stoll seems to relish in his lies and manipulations. As Desdemona, Heather Lind is an animated, pert and sprightly ingénue, a debutante used to getting her own way. Though sympathetic, Lind never makes us feel her terror as her husband’s jealousy rises to ever new heights. Better is Alison Wright, recognizable from her five years on The Americans, as a sharp-tongued, strong Emilia, Iago’s suspecting wife and lady-in-waiting to Desdemona. However, as she is British, she is allowed to use a UK accent, not used by any other member of the cast.
Motell Foster’s Roderigo, parted from his money by the manipulative Iago, is not as imbecilic or doltish as he is often played. Here he seems like an upright man caught in the net of a master con-man. Babak Tafti, though dashing, does not seem to have a definite handle on Michael Cassio so that we never know what kind of man he really is except for his vigorous sword fighting in his two on-stage brawls. Flor De Liz Perez’s Bianca, Cassio’s girl friend from the night time world, is an unusually strong portrayal. Not the usually common harlot she is described, Perez is both lady-like, strong and bold, and like Emilia giving as good as she gets but in a well-tempered, mannerly way. Of the Venetians, Andrew Hovelson’s Lodovico is most effective as Desdemona’s kinsman.
There is not very much wrong with Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s production of Othello. But, on the other hand, with this cast and production team it ought to have been more powerful. The themes of love, jealousy and racism seem to have been diluted in a misguided attempt to make the play more modern. You will not come away terribly disappointed, just wishing there had been more. Having won two Tony Awards for August Wilson plays, both as an actor and as a director, it may be that Santiago-Hudson is more inventive when it comes to new contemporary plays where he can put his personal stamp on the work.
Othello (through June 24, 2018)
2018 Free Shakespeare in the Park
The Public Theater at the Delacorte Theater, Central Park, enter at 81st Street and Central Park West or 79th Street and Fifth Avenue, in Manhattan
Free tickets distributed at Noon via the free lines at the Delacorte Theater to those on prior line each day there is a public performance or by Mobile Ticket Lottery on the TodayTix app or http://www.TodayTix.com. Also a limited number of vouchers for that night’s performance will also be distributed via an in-person lottery at The Pubic Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, at Astor Place, Manhattan
Running time: three hours including one intermission