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You wouldn’t know Othello is considered a tragedy from the laughter rolling through the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. Corey Stoll’s rollicking portrayal of the villainous Iago in Shakespeare’s classic takes some getting used to. After all, it’s hard to remember the last time the line “Strangle her in her bed” — helpfully suggested by Iago to the title character about the wife he wrongly suspects of infidelity — was an occasion for hilarity.
And yet it is here, at least to some audience members who may not be familiar with the play usually delivered in far more ominous tones. It’s partly because of Stoll, who downplays Iago’s sinister aspects in favor of conveying a casual delight in his machinations, one that he eagerly puts across with the timing of a stand-up comedian: Never has the phrase “I hate the Moor!” sounded less threatening. His undeniably entertaining performance is the most unorthodox aspect of Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s otherwise slavishly traditional staging.
These days, a Shakespearean production set in the appropriate period and devoid of modernistic touches seems almost an aberration, as if the director just wasn’t trying hard enough. The approach feels refreshing here, especially after last season’s misbegotten Central Park production of Julius Caesar, in which the title character was presented as a Donald Trump parody. It takes a few minutes into this Othello before one gets used to seeing the cast in Toni-Leslie James’ handsome period costumes rather than modern military uniforms and business suits.
Unfortunately, that lack of daringness also results in the evening feeling stodgy and dull, Stoll’s attempts at comic relief notwithstanding. Performed on Rachel Hauck’s visually drab set consisting of little more than faux stone arches, the production lacks the passion and urgency necessary to make us care about the tragic fates of its principal figures.
Despite the problematic aspects of his interpretation, Stoll nonetheless manages to be compelling, thanks to his formidable charisma and wonderfully naturalistic delivery. This is the actor’s third Central Park appearance in as many summers (last year he was an impressive Brutus) and his growing confidence and ease is noticeable. Especially in comparison to his co-star Chukwudi Iwuji, whose Othello feels mannered and histrionic. So terrific in the recent off-Broadway premiere of Bruce Norris’ The Low Road, the Nigerian-British actor here conveys little of his character’s fierceness and stature, making his downfall at Iago’s hand seem all too inevitable.
The female leads, on the other hand are terrific. Heather Lind infuses Desdemona with a combination of strength and vulnerability that makes a character who can sometimes seem a mere plot device heartbreakingly real. But it’s Alison Wright who is the standout of the evening. The actress — nominated for an Emmy last year for her superb turn as the ill-fated Martha in The Americans, and also seen in a key supporting role on Feud — delivers such a vibrant and intelligent turn as Iago’s faithful wife Emilia that you wish the whole play were about her.
Santiago-Hudson, whose directorial credits include acclaimed productions of several August Wilson plays, seems a bit adrift here. His sluggishly paced staging lacks momentum, a quality not normally missing in this, one of Shakespeare’s most accessible, plot-driven works. The director also makes some odd choices, such as in the bizarre murder scene in which Othello seems to kill his wife not by strangling her but rather hugging her to death. Another problem is the bombastic music composed by Derek Wieland, which feels entirely too slathered on.
Newcomers to Othello will certainly get the essence of the play in this mostly straightforward staging. And, of course, tickets are free. But those who have seen previous versions, such as the recent off-Broadway production starring an incendiary Daniel Craig and David Oyelowo, will likely feel that this presentation has little reason for being.
Venue: Delacorte Theater, New York
Cast: Kevin Rico Angulo, Christopher Cassarino, Peter Jay Fernandez, Motell Foster, Andrew Hovelson, Chukwudi Iwuji, David Kenner, Heather Lind, Tim Nicolai, Flor de Liz Perez, Miguel Perez, Lily Santiago, Thomas Schall, Caroline Siewert, Corey Stoll, Babak Tafti, Allen Tedder, Peter Van Wagner, Alison Wright
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Ruben Santiago-Hudson
Set designer: Rachel Hauck
Costume designer: Toni-Leslie James
Lighting designer: Jane Cox
Music: Derek Wieland
Sound designer: Jessica Paz
Presented by The Public Theater
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