Less Is Moor

As is, even more distressingly, Schreiber's Iago. Here is an actor whose power in this realm was proved several years back, when he played what might be called the junior version of the role (Iachimo is the diminutive of Iago) so gloriously in the Delacorte production of Cymbeline. Expecting the best, what we get here is merely all right. Even more complex than Othello, Iago is also a more elusive figure. Far from having no motive, his malignity has almost too many: Othello gave someone else the better job; he may have slept with Iago's wife; the fellow he gave the job to, Cassio, is unqualified. There is a class issue—Cassio is a gentleman, Iago a professional soldier—to go with the race issue. Modern eyes have seen a homosexual element in Iago's fixation on Othello's love life (Hughes's staging relocates his interest in Roderigo), and a degree of projection that suggests his desire to replace not Cassio but Othello. Two of Schreiber's most striking moments come when he nearly kisses Desdemona, and when, plotting Cassio's murder, the notion of taking command himself seems to cross his mind. Such moments are like lightning flashes of the great Iago Schreiber ought to be.

For the most part, though, what we get is solid, not quite stolid, impassivity. Like David avoiding the trumpet tones of pomp, Schreiber shuns the temptation to revel in his evil with shriek and rant, which has destroyed countless Iagos (the worst ever was Christopher Plummer's, so openly demented that even Roderigo would have had him put away). But in dodging the one trap, Schreiber falls into its opposite, enjoying his evil so little that it lacks credibility. The best Iago I ever saw, because the most convincingly scary, was Christopher Walken. You could see why the other characters accepted him as sane, though he was clearly unhinged; he rarely raised his voice, but it was easy to believe that he might want to kill any number of people. Schreiber dutifully declares that he hates the Moor; he goes efficiently through the motions of killing Roderigo and Emilia; but the person whose thoughts we've been privy to, through lines and lines of lucidly spoken soliloquy, doesn't appear to have any strong connection to these acts. You expect his alibi to be "The script made me do it." Mary McCarthy praised José Ferrer (playing opposite Robeson) for finding in the role the visionary "who makes his dream of evil come true on earth." Maybe that was more readily imaginable in the late 1940s, with Hitler just destroyed and Stalin still alive. But surely we have examples enough all around us today; bringing them to imaginative life, so that we can exorcise them from ourselves through the ritual of playgoing, is the difficult part.

Keith David and Liev Schreiber in Othello: facing the enemy
photo: Michal Daniel
Keith David and Liev Schreiber in Othello: facing the enemy

Details

Othello
By William Shakespeare
Joseph Papp Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street
212-239-6200

As if trying hard not to steal the muted thunder of these centerpieces, Hughes's supporting actors often tend to come in just slightly under their best work. Even Forbes, a strong and beautiful Desdemona, occasionally gets too soft-spoken for the Anspacher's three-quarter stage. The good work by oldsters Ryland and Morfogen at the start is balanced, later on, by two appealing youngsters in tiny roles: Natacha Roi (Bianca) and Dan Snook (Lodovico). Jay Goede is a likable, slightly callow Cassio, and Becky Ann Baker a firm but oddly unincisive Emilia. Some of the limitation involved may come from Hughes, whose austere approach consciously leaves blank many moments that beg for supportive detail. Just as drama critics, getting the good, always beg for the better.

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