W.C. Fields was right: Never work with animals or children. For proof, look no further than Shakespeare in the Park, where at any moment an actor might be upstaged by a fame-hungry raccoon. Or, as was the case at last Saturday night’s Othello, a raccoon trailed by a bunch of bushy-tailed baby raccoons.
Though they appeared only briefly, far upstage, the furry interlopers caused enough of a stir that you almost forgot the title character was about to fly into a jealous murderous rage. Shakespeare’s most tragic of all his tragedies isn’t exactly tailor-made for the open-air Delacorte Theater; perhaps that’s why it hasn’t been staged there since 1991 (when it starred Raúl Juliá and Christopher Walken). At its heart, Othello is a domestic drama: A Venetian general of great strength and renown, Othello (Chukwudi Iwuji), aka “the Moor,” is also a newlywed, married in secret to the strong-willed Desdemona (Heather Lind). His ensign, the so-called “honest Iago” (Corey Stoll), wants to bring him down, so he hits Othello where the general has the least experience—the marriage bed. His foolproof plan? Convince Othello that Desdemona is a whore. Which turns out to be surprisingly easy. Othello may be a badass on the battlefield, but he’s far less self-assured on the home front. (Side note: Has anyone ever noticed how many times Shakespeare uses the phrase “honest Iago” in this play? It’s almost as ubiquitous as “pipe dream” in The Iceman Cometh. Drinking game alert!)
Iwuji—recently seen in Bruce Norris’ epic The Low Road at the Public Theater—is by turns commanding, cocky, cold, and charismatic in the title role. When Desdemona’s father, Brabantio (Miguel Perez), accuses him of seduction-by-witchcraft, he’s visibly amused. Although in Brabantio’s defense, he learned of the marriage thusly from Iago: “Even now, now, very now, an old black ram/ Is tupping your white ewe.” For his part, Stoll is a surprisingly down-to-earth Iago—a welcome change from previous evil-to-the-core Iagos. “And what’s he, then, that says I play the villain?” he asks in one of his conspiratorial asides to the audience. Clearly, Stoll—and director Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who seems to have a knack for Shakespeare—don’t see Iago as a stereotypical villain. Sure, his hatred of the Moor is likely rooted in racism. But the thing that really ticks him off—the incident that sets his whole destructive plan in motion—is simply being snubbed for a promotion. Iago lost the lieutenant’s gig to Cassio (Babak Tafti). “A Florentine,” Iago spits. Iago could be the guy in the cube next to you.
Perhaps even more impressive than Iwuji and Stoll—particularly Stoll, who’s making his third consecutive stellar summer appearance at the Delacorte (following 2016’s Troilus and Cressida and 2017’s Julius Caesar)—are Lind and Alison Wright, who turns in a wonderfully fiery performance as Iago’s wife and Desdemona’s attendant, Emilia. Too often Othello is reduced to Iago and Othello, with the women serving as little more than window-dressing. This is a beautifully dressed production, to be sure—Toni-Leslie James’ costumes are rendered in plush velvet, shimmering brocade, and supple leather—and it’s a substantial one as well.
Othello opened June 18, 2018, and runs through June 24. Tickets and information: publictheater.org