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It is surprising that Othello has not been staged at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park since 1991. As well as being among Shakespeare’s most accessible works — thanks to its unswerving plot and characters — Othello presents an impending tragedy that begins, ends, and otherwise almost entirely transpires during the nighttime. So this play is an appropriate one to show outdoors during the summer: As twilight fades into evening darkness, the twittering birds grow silent and the 400-year-old story of malign intentions and misguided jealousy becomes ever more compelling.
Will these intrigues — so skillfully manipulated by the malevolent Iago — actually incite Othello to murder Desdemona, his “honest, chaste, and true” wife? Probably many of the people who are attending the play already know its outcome. Even so, observing the ways that the two-faced Iago plants seeds of distrust in the mind of Othello, he “of a free and open nature that thinks men honest that but seem to be so,” proves to be all the more fascinating when observed with such prior awareness.
Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who directs the Public Theater’s current production, wisely allows no offbeat concepts to obscure the story. Do not expect Othello on Mars. Nor does he go the Mark Rylance route of period stylization, encouraging his performers to painstakingly replicate era-specific performance practices. Santiago-Hudson’s approach to the play, rather, is straightforward in every way. He leaves the text virtually untrimmed — the show runs about three hours — and provides cleanly cut visuals.
There is, in fact, a nearly eerie quality to the perfection of the production’s looks. The early-1600s costumes are sumptuously designed by Toni-Leslie James in mostly black, white, and shimmering gold and silver fabrics. (Many of the men sport immaculate black leather breeches and jerkins that must be murder for the actors to wear on sticky summer nights.) The expansive setting, designed by Rachel Hauck, is simply two flanking stone colonnades of gothic arches that elegantly suggest the story’s locations, first in Venice and then a seaport in Cyprus.
Dovetailing with these spic-and-span circumstances is the formal way in which Santiago-Hudson initially stages the action. The actors often stand front and center to deliver their key speeches, while others, picturesquely arranged on the perimeters, remain motionless. The director paces the play quickly, but his groupings of the actors look systematic, even to the point of appearing rigid. Then, as night falls and the story darkens with villainy, this tidy, well-ordered world increasingly becomes disarranged and even chaotic with its assassination attempts, clashing swordplay, and, finally, death amid the bedsheets. So, too, does the production and its staging gradually loosen up to look spontaneous. The cool and stately nature of this Othello during its beginning sequence contrasts powerfully with the horror and desolation of the closing scenes — a transformation that mirrors that of the protagonist. Santiago-Hudson calculates this effect astutely.
Chukwudi Iwuji depicts a gentlemanly Othello, who speaks in cultivated, measured tones. As Othello succumbs to Iago’s machinations, Iwuji’s voice grows raw with rage. These controlled and maddened sides of temperament are deployed equally by Iwuji during Othello’s final confrontation with Desdemona. Yet this Othello seems obviously to be under the baneful influence of Iago from the story’s beginning, a telegraphing that tends to diminish the distance of the character’s fall from greatness. Still, Corey Stoll is difficult to resist as Iago; his insidious performance dominates both the title character and this production. Bearded, bald, and tall, Stoll cuts a striking figure even when he silently stands, arms at his sides, to watch the results of his endeavors. A matter-of-fact tone that Stoll lends to Iago’s wickedness brings some unexpected humor to the character, suggesting the devilish charm that ensnares others in his web.
Heather Lind is a pleasing, modest Desdemona, who is girlish in her playful moments with Othello and later sturdily holds her ground in the face of Othello’s raging. She is quietly poignant in her delicate interpretation of the “Sing willow, willow, willow” scene that is literally Desdemona’s swan song. Appropriately pert as Emilia, Desdemona’s confidante and Iago’s wife, Alison Wright erupts with fiery intensity as she vehemently denounces her husband.
If there are no breakout performances among the remainder of the ensemble, they at least serve the drama well with their crisp diction. The production is further supported by the dramatic music composed by Derek Wieland, which provides a lush accompaniment to Shakespeare’s tragedy regarding a green-eyed monster let loose upon an unsuspecting hero and his loving bride.