WHERE Delacorte Theater, Central Park, through June 24
INFO Free, go to publictheater.org for information on obtaining tickets
BOTTOM LINE An exhilarating take on Shakespeare’s tale of revenge.
There’s something about “Othello” that invites tinkering — several major productions in recent years have set William Shakespeare’s tragedy in modern times, say a military barracks with orders dispensed by cellphone and assault rifles at the ready.
So it becomes something of a radical choice for director Ruben Santiago-Hudson to do away with such notions. His exhilarating staging of this tale of jealousy, racism and revenge, opening the season’s free Shakespeare in the Park from the Public Theater, puts the play back where its author intended, 16th century Venice.
From the moment the cast enters to trumpet fanfare, the story of the Moor general of Venice driven to murderous jealousy by a low-level underling unfolds with a sense of inevitable doom.
Othello is one of the Bard’s most conflicted figures and as the play opens Chukwudi Iwuji portrays him as a respected, likable leader, confident in his ability to persuade on or off the battlefield, but still uncertain of his standing because of his race. The truly persuasive one, of course, is Iago. It takes little more than being passed over for promotion to send one of the great villains of all time on his path of revenge, planting with treacherous intent seeds of jealousy in Othello. The man’s so besotted by his bride, Desdemona (Heather Lind, beautifully playing a woman so in love she barely notices the rug being pulled from beneath her) that he’s easily taken in by Iago’s scheming.
Corey Stoll gives Iago a frightening, psychopathic edge, making it obvious that his proclamations of honesty are anything but. “I am not what I am,” he proclaims, a message so relevant that’s its emblazoned on the souvenir T-shirt’s. Appropriately his comeuppance is delivered by his wife Emilia (Alison Wright, an intelligent performance as a desperate housewife who ultimately perceives, and tragically reveals, her husband’s deception).
Hundreds of thousands of words have been written on “Othello,” many of them focusing on the racial issues that, as the Public’s artistic director Oskar Eustis points out in program notes, is a question every production grapples with. Here it is apparent mostly in the derisive way various characters say the word Moor — it’s easy to think of any number of horrific epithets that might be uttered in its place.
On another level, to be sure, this tale of love and lust is simply a soap opera, one that could clearly translate to a Netflix series. If nothing else, setting it in its original time period makes clear that deception and ugly ambitions know no era.