photo by Joan Marcus
What a strange set of inexplicable choices director Ruben Santiago-Hudson has made in The Public Theater’s production of Othello at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park! He has, first of all, cast a black actor in the role of Roderigo. There’s no point in Othello’s being a black man if he’s not the only black man in the story. The entire subtext of racism that runs through the play is lost, and Brabantio’s outrage at his daughter’s marriage is ill-explained. The beating of the play’s heart has been stopped. This is Shakespeare victimized by political correctness.
Secondly, Mr. Santiago-Hudson has cut Othello’s epileptic seizure, although he’s retained most of the scene in which it occurs. We never see the intensity of The Moor’s emotions, particularly not his state of mind before he commits the murder.
In fact, Mr. Santiago-Hudson has cut considerably, both through fine pruning and large hacking. A couple of the shortest scenes disappear completely, such as II, 2. Now, he can make a good case for this cutting. With a 20-minute intermission, the production still runs three hours. But what misconceived aesthetic has led him to cut one line from rhymed couplets that end a scene? For example, the suggestive couplet ending I, 3 reads The purchase made, the fruits are to ensue - That profit's yet to come 'tweene me, and you. In this production, however, Othello says simply The purchase made, the fruits are to ensue.
It’s as if Mr. Santiago-Hudson wants to undercut decorum and move toward realism. But he ends the play with Othello’s line No way but this - Killing myself, to die upon a kiss, although the scene as written continues for a dozen lines. On this stage, the ending is formal, not real. On the other hand, at one point Cassio and Bianca talk at the same time in one scene.
All of this cutting is one reason that Othello’s convincement is unbelievable. He succumbs to suspicion too easily - and goodness knows he succumbs to suspicion easily enough even with the entire script.
What’s more, Mr. Santiago-Hudson has cast Chukwudi Iwuji in the title role, and he plays Othello like a petulant brat. Having brought Othello before the Duke, Brabantio says of Desdemona And she … To fall in love with what she feared to look on! At this line, Othello gives a smirking smile to the assembly. We have no respect for this character. He doesn’t fall from higher state to a lower state during the course of the tragedy. He starts low and stays there. Even at the end of the play, after he’s learned what Iago has done, he seems to have learned nothing and his line Then must you speak - Of one that loved not wisely, but too well, falls flat.
Mr. Iwuji aside, the acting in the production is first-rate. Heather Lind makes a great Desdemona, young, smart and pushy. As Brabantio, Miguel Perez manages to say lines like O heaven! How got she out? O treason of the blood! believably, with commitment but without histrionics. And Babak Tafti gives a strong performance as a weak character, Cassio.
Iago, as played by Corey Stoll, is a Boy Scout, and it’s a great performance. He could easily deceive you or me. It’s so tempting to play Iago as oily and villainous that it’s grand to see him played as a Nice Boy. He doesn’t change when addressing the audience; there’s no intimacy. The key to his performance is found in one short line. When Iago kills Roderigo, Shakespeare gives him a cryptic line: Kill men i’ th’ dark? Mr. Stoll delivers the line, plunging the knife, with such sadistic pleasure that we see for a fleeting instant the congenital evil in the character. It’s beneath motivation, reptilian.
But the audience titters with - though not at - this Iago, and otherwise vocalize as much as to say “Ooh, what a villain”? They titter, for example, at his line to Othello To be direct and Honest is not safe. American audiences love to laugh, and they know the Othello story, so they distance themselves from the play.
The pace is clean, and every moment is focussed. The design is traditional: Desdemona’s wearing a lovely Elizabethan dress and the actors to a man are in leather pants. The set is marvelous, visually - seven arches behind six arches - and it moves for the Council Chamber. Unfortunately, it doesn’t change to indicate Cyprus, which, paradoxically, looks just like Venice. The least a set could do is to indicate setting.
And so the production is enjoyable - but, then, so is Neil Simon. There’s no tragedy here, only a well-played melodrama. But Free Shakespeare in the Park is always wonderful, with that one bright star - or maybe it’s Venus - over the stage, and the stage itself glowing - Wonderful!