Monday, June 18, 2018

31 (2018-2019): Review: OTHELLO (seen June 17, 2018)

“The Green-Eyed Monster”

A beautiful, warm and balmy night watching a Shakespeare production at the Delacorte in Central Park can make even sitting for three hours on hard, stadium-type, wooden seats a pleasant enough experience, which is true even for the milk and water Othello now being offered under Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s direction. His mostly conventional, textbook staging stars Chukwudi Iwuji (so memorable in last season’s The Low Road) as the Moor, the ubiquitous Corey Stoll as Iago, the beauteous Heather Lind as Desdemona (The Public’s The Merchant of Venice), Babak Tafti (Small Mouth Sounds) as Cassio, and Alison Wright (Sweat) as Emilia. 
Chikwudi Iwuji. Photo: Joan Marcus.
This well-spoken, unobtrusively staged production, faithful to Shakespeare’s text, is played on Rachel Hauck’s neutral set of Venetian arches set in sand-colored walls whose positions can be slightly altered (despite looking more or less the same throughout). Toni Leslie-James’s abundant costumes conjure, without precisely replicating, the beauty of early 17th-century Venetian wear.
Chikwudki Iwuji, Corey Stoll. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Othello's action commences in the dark of night, which makes its opening scene problematic for an outdoor production that begins around 8:10, before the mid-June sun has set. Santiago-Hudson makes no attempt to at least hint at the hour by the use of torches or lanterns, as even Shakespeare’s daytime performances most likely did. But when it does darken, Jane Cox’s lighting helps evoke the proper tragic atmosphere, supplemented by Derek Wieland’s pretty, period-flavored music.
Chikwudi Iwuji, Corey Stoll. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Only a few relatively minor directorial flourishes stand out, like having Othello lift Desdemona to crush her in his arms instead of wrapping his hands around her neck. Considering that Iwuji is of average size, this feat of strength may not be objectively convincing but it does offer a variation one can point to when searching for something original to cite. In this context, it should be noted, Thomas Schall’s well-choreographed and executed fight scenes are worthy of commendation.
Heather Lind, Chikwuji Iwuji. Photo; Joan Marcus.
Unlike last summer’s controversial Julius Caesar, when the title character physically bore all the attributes of our current tyrant-in-chief, this production avoids exaggerating the play’s contemporary relevance. To me, that distinction lies mainly in Iago, a man who surely has lied his entire life to reach his current position as Othello’s “ancient.”

However, this crafty Machiavellian, disappointed at not having been promoted to the post of the Moor’s lieutenant, is so unhappy that he tells ever and ever bigger lies to get rid of  Cassio, the able soldier for whom he was bypassed. Naturally, this leads to the ultimate tragedy concerning Desdemona’s handkerchief, which Iago uses to malign Cassio as her lover, and thereby to incite the ragingly jealous Othello to kill her.
Corey Stoll, Alison Wright. Photo: Joan Marcus.
A case could be made to portray Iago as a ruthless Trumpian avatar ready to say anything and crush anyone in order to achieve his ambitions. Thankfully, it’s a connection we can, if we wish, make for ourselves without having it pushed in our face. The strapping Stoll, encased in black leather tights and top, brings his lightly New York-accented charisma to the role but his sardonically humorous take ("one may smile, and smile, and be a villain," as Hamlet says) remains too one-dimensional, failing to find the many nuances among the various sides of Iago’s personality.
Heather Lind, Chikwudi Iwuji. Photo: Joan Marcus.
In this regard, the retention of Iago’s long, scheming monologues, in which he so specifically lays out his evil plans, comes eventually to seem a playwriting foible in which Shakespeare chooses to tell more than to show what the character has in mind.
Babak Tafti, Flor de Liz Perez (as Bianca). Photo: Joan Marcus.
While the black leather encasing Iago (which must be stifling on hot nights under the lights) works for this ultra-villain (albeit perhaps too obviously signaling his nature), Othello’s garb is annoyingly distracting. James has dressed him in tight leather pants and boots, with a short black leather jacket and a blousy white shirt. It’s a sexy ensemble that makes the trim Iwuji look more like a biker bad boy than the Moorish general Venice hopes will conquer the threatening Turks.
Chikwudi Iwuji, Heather Lind. Photo: Joan Marcus.
When his jacket is off, he could easily be playing Hamlet or Romeo, but, aside from the color of his skin, certainly not Othello. Only in the bedroom scenes late in the play does he wear anything resembling the Moor’s cultural background—a sweeping, African-patterned, sleeveless robe—diminishing the play’s suggestion of not only a racial but cultural divide between the character and his Venetian friends and employers.

The same de-emphasis on racial tension is made further apparent by casting African-American actor Motell Foster as Roderigo. Even a white Roderigo defies credibility by thinking he has the ghost of a chance with Desdemona; having a black Roderigo in a world where blacks are openly disparaged for their racial features is impossible to accept. Oskar Eustis’s program note says that the play’s central concern for us today is Othello’s “otherness” in a racially biased society; a black Roderigo contradicts this since the play makes no reference to his color. Surely, this casting isn’t suggesting that Roderigo sees himself as a minor Othello, as in, “if he could do it, why can’t I?”

To some degree this could be mollified by playing the egregiously naïve Roderigo as something of a simpleton, but, under Santiago-Hudson’s direction, he comes off as an ordinary soldier, no smarter or dumber than most, with a misguided vision of his romantic possibilities. His deception by Iago is thus much harder to buy.

Of course, even the noble Othello is deceived by Iago’s wiles. In this production, however, Othello's reaction to his betrayal arrives too easily, and Iwuji’s reaction too often loses the man’s regality in favor of petulant breast-beating. I don’t recall ever feeling as strongly just how foolish Othello is.
Heather Lind, Alison Wright. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Iwuji makes a striking appearance and speaks beautifully, albeit his tenor more closely resembles a romantic lover than a seasoned warrior who has had adventures among “the cannibals that each other eat, the Anthropophagi, and men whose heads do grow beneath their shoulders.” The performance of this very difficult role is intelligent and emotional but falls short of being tragically powerful in the way, for example, James Earl Jones’s Othello was so many years ago.

Lind’s gracious Desdemona, decked out in gorgeous Renaissance-style gowns, hits all the right physical and emotional marks, and her spirited responses to Othello’s accusations are admirably defiant and poignant. Tafti is somewhat slight as Cassio but manages to capture the role’s pathos, while a sturdy ensemble provides adequate support to all the principals.

But if I were to choose which performance will remain in my memory when time has passed it would be Alison Wright’s unusually touching, exquisitely controlled, and bravely confessional Emilia. The role has its problems, including why she doesn’t pipe up sooner about what she knows, but Wright is so consistently honest and real, this often neglected secondary role shines more brightly than anything else in the production.

A final note: I have no idea why, but the night I went there were so many entrances and exits in the audience you’d think that’s where the play was being performed. It was not unlike being at a ballgame where people are always leaving to get refreshments or use the bathrooms. Some people returned, but most did not. It’s hard to accept that, given what most theatregoers must do to get seats to Shakespeare in the Park, these people would so easily give up on a production that, while not superlative, is sufficiently grounded in the Bard’s action and characters to sit it out for the duration. Whatever the reason for this behavior, it was both shameful and annoying. I hope it doesn’t happen again.


Delacorte Theater/Shakespeare in the Park (Public Theater)
Central Park West at W. 82nd St., NYC
Through June 24