For this summer’s first Free Shakespeare in the Park presentation (opening tonight), director Ruben Santiago-Hudson delivers an Othello that does its best to put the focus on the killer and his doomed Desdemona, but that weasel of all weasels Iago just won’t be ignored.
That’s partly because Corey Stoll (The Strain, Homeland) plays the ultimate conniver with such a convivial air that turning away isn’t much of an option.
Much like the gimmick-free production itself – aside from bits of rock-star leather, Toni-Leslie James’ costumes are sumptuous black and gold period dress, as if to scotch any memory of last summer’s controversial Trumpian suit & tie Julius Caesar – Chukwudi Iwuji (Quantico, Madame Secretary) couldn’t be more straightforward as the fatally jealous Othello, whose love for Desdemona (Boardwalk Empire‘s Heather Lind) spirals into violent obsession.
Though the racial underpinnings of the play aren’t overlooked – more than one character spits out the word “Moor” as if no further explanation is required – Santiago-Hudson seems more intent on examining gender violence here, as Lind’s sweet, rather befuddled Desdemona is altogether incapable of fully grasping the hair-trigger brutality of men, or at least one in particular who convinces himself (with a little help from a friend) that he’s been done wrong.
It’s an approach that works here and there. Modern audiences have to squint awfully hard to find love in Othello’s smothering embrace – and that’s not a metaphor in this production. Iwuji goes full on in his descent to fury and madness, so much so that by the time he hugs the life out of Desdemona we wonder why his beloved would step anywhere near him, much less jump into his back-breaking arms.
Stoll plays Iago from an altogether different angle, viciousness disguised as affability. His asides to the audience border on comic, a stealthy, winning approach. His conversational, contemporary spin contrasts nicely with Iwuji’s more classical delivery – they’re a vivid pair.
Most indelible, though, is Alison Wright (The Americans, and so good as Robert Aldrich’s ambitious assistant Pauline in last year’s Feud: Bette and Joan). Her Emilia, wife of Iago and attendant to Desdemona, finally unleashes the pent-up wrath and righteousness that’s been building throughout two-plus hours of testosterone-fueled thrusting and parrying. Outraged and heartbroken to find what these wicked, dumb men have wrought, Emilia is the voice that rings loudest from Central Park’s Delacorte Theatre this early summer. Where’s her play?