Congratulations to Ruben Santiago-Hudson for his pleasingly straightforward presentation of Othello, the first of this year’s Public Theater Free Shakespeare in the Park. By now all us Bardolaters know that just because these annually awaited productions are free doesn’t mean they’re invariably good. This one is: Very, very good.
To begin with, director Santiago-Hudson has chosen to present the revival in period costumes, which these days is tantamount to a radical approach. The urge among directors to place their Shakespeare items at any time but the 16th century is one that’s way past its due date.
To celebrate Santiago-Hudson’s gratifying decision, Toni-Leslie James has outfitted the cast in clothes that King Lear refers to as “what thou gorgeous wear’st.” The wardrobe is all but exclusively black and white with intricate gold trimmings. The effect is that everything donned is thrown into strong relief against Rachel Hauck’s series of tall light-stone arches
Actually, the arches serve elegantly as a backdrop whether the action is taking place in Venice or Cyprus. Come to think of it, one of the few drawbacks in Santiago-Hudson’s approach is that a dulling sameness to the set threatens to take over the mood as Shakespeare’s five acts unfold.
Yes, at one point the central arches are moved to form an encompassing downstage right angle and are then returned to their original positions by members of the cast or stage hands (it’s difficult to say which), but doesn’t stifle an abiding stasis.
Perhaps this is the director’s way of telegraphing that he intends to have the cast members provide the local—that’s to say the locale—color. What’s more than commendable is that this cast is easily up to fulfilling the requirements of a well-known tale wherein an exalted warrior Moor undone by loving not wisely but too well is helped along in his foolish suspicion of the innocent Desdemona by deviously jealous subordinate Iago. (The darkening atmospherics are enhanced by Jane Cox’ lighting design, Jessica Paz’ sound design, and Derek Wieland’s original music.)
It may not be noted often enough that the jealousy leading to Othello’s ruin is also Iago’s downfall. Immeasurably ironic, no?, that it’s Iago who declares to Othello, “O, beware, my lord, of jealousy, it is the green-ey’d monster, which doth mock the meat it feed on.”
So then what of Chukwudi Iwuji, the production’s Othello? Stocky and handsome, he’s a model title character as a commander who’s just vanquished the Turks and has returned to love his Desdemona (Heather Lind) wisely in what turns out to be a short respite.
Iwuji is especially master of his wits when Desdemona’s father Brabantio (Miguel Perez) complains to the Duke about the Moor’s having stolen his daughter’s affection. Several times Iwuji smiles broadly at the false assumptions aired.
The confident smiles are something new and perceptive that Iwuji—and Santiago-Hudson—bring to the role. Where Iwuji and Santiago-Hudson may go a mite too far is in Othello’s rapid descent into jealous rage. The man’s affection for his recent bride seems stronger than this too quick acceding to Iago’s scheme. Still, it’s a relatively minor thing when weighed against Iwuji’s strengths.
Corey Stoll, shaved head and bearded, is becoming a Shakespeare in the Park favorite, having appeared—having Shakespeared?—in last year’s Julius Caesar and in Troilus and Cressida the year before that. There’s no mystery why he’s being recruited. He’s ready to take stage authoritatively whenever handed the opportunity. Playing one of dramatic literature’s most famous villains, he does that. His Iago certainly has the qualities of a street fighter.
This Iago can’t wait to be alone so he can lean over confidentially to reveal his odious plan to the audience. Stoll is evidently aware that spectators eat these asides up with a spoon. Is artistic director Oscar Eustis thinking about Stoll as the Public’s next Richard III? (By the way, why hasn’t it ever struck me that Iago gives his age as 42, when few Shakespeare’s characters ever mention how old they are? Does Hamlet? Does Macbeth?)
As Desdemona, Lind is more outgoing and curious than Desdemonas tend to be. She may be puzzled at Othello’s abrupt change towards her, but she’s ready to stand up gamely for herself. Speaking with enviable clarity, the oval-faced, slim Lind is also uncommonly beautiful. As of this forceful performance, Lind announces she’s ready for any number of follow-up leading-lady roles. (By the way, why hasn’t it also occurred to me that watching Brabantio cut Desdemona out of his life is a mirror image of Lear’s renouncing Cordelia for the same reason: for suggesting that a daughter owes a husband at least half the love she’s previously accorded her father?)
The loyal and keen-eyed Emilia is Alison Wright, and she, too, does plenty with a role that’s retiring at first but becomes increasingly outspoken. Looking like a lady-in-waiting who’s been with Desdemona for some time, this Emilia eventually unleashes the vengeful fire in her eyes. As a result, Wright gives a memorable performance in what often seems a rewarding but secondary part.
In an unusually strong cast of Shakespeareans, standouts include Motell Foster as the duped Roderigo, Babak Tafti as the done-wrong Cassio, Flor De Liz Perez as the hot Bianca, and Thomas Schall as expert swordsman Montano (doubling as the busy fight director).
Okay, so tickets for this Othello are free. The Public’s enthusiastic ticket-obtainers are still getting much more than their money’s worth.
Othello opened June 18, 2018, at the Delacorte Theater and runs through June 24. Tickets and information: publictheater.org