Yesterday was a lot of fun. Wrenn and I had lunch with friends then hung out on the standby line in Central Park for Othello, which starred Chukwudi Iwuji in the title role (he was in John Wick 2 and also the impossible astronaut two-parter on Doctor Who), Corey Stoll as Iago (he was Yellowjacket in Ant-Man), Heather Lind as Desdemona (she was one of the stars of Turn: Washington’s Spies), and Alison Wright as Emilia (a regular on The Americans). All four were superb, and the production was very well directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson (whom folks probably know best as an actor playing Captain Montgomery on Castle; as a playwright as the author of Lackawanna Blues; and as a theatre director for his recent revival of August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson).
This is the second time I’ve seen Othello as part of Shakespeare in the Park, the ongoing free productions of Shakespeare in Central Park’s Delacorte Theatre that have been going on since the 1950s, and which I’ve been attending for as long as I’ve been alive. (In fact, some of my earliest memories of childhood are sitting on the Great Lawn waiting for tickets while some dude wandered around peddling sangria.) The last production of Othello I saw was in 1991, and starred Raul Julia as a big bombastic Othello and Christopher Walken as, basically, Iago from Brooklyn. It was glorious.
What I particularly liked about this version of Othello is that among most of the characters there is genuine affection. Far too often, whoever is playing Othello is so focused on the obsessive flame jealousy that Iago stokes that his love for Desdemona never comes through. It’s a tough role to play because Iago plays him like a two-dollar banjo, and it’s very easy for Othello to come across as an idiot.
Iwuji threads that needle nicely: his Othello is a man of passion, but never does he lose sight of the fact that he loves Desdemona, even in the final scene where he strangles her in their bed (always a brutal scene to watch, and this one was particularly nasty, as Lind is flailing as she tries and fails to keep breathing).
But the standout here is Stoll. If you’d told me that the guy who was so incredibly uninteresting as Yellowjacket (just one of a multitude of things wrong with Ant-Man) would make a great Iago, I’d have laughed in your face, but Stoll is simply brilliant here. He modulates so cunningly into the different modes he needs to be in: solicitous friend to Desdemona, loyal friend to Othello who is reluctant to give him ill news, devil in the ear of Roderigo, faithful comrade to Cassio, disdainful husband to Emilia, and then in his many asides, his true face of loathing toward the Moor. Stoll keeps the character’s racism subtle, which in 2018 may not have been the best approach (subtlety is for when racists aren’t feeling emboldened), but it’s still an incredibly effective performance.
Stoll is also the only one who has no love in his heart. Every other actor in this film shows love for their fellow, whether it’s Desdemona’s father for her (though, like Othello’s, his is twisted, in this case by his racism), Emilia’s for Iago (which the man himself drains out of her) and Desdemona, Othello’s for Iago, Cassio’s for pretty much everyone. That love, that passion, informs all the characters’ actions (or, in Iago’s case, the passionate hatred), and it makes everyone’s performance better, particularly those of Lind and Wright. Lind really sells Desdemona’s utter confusion; Wright does likewise for Emilia’s conflict between marital duty and moral outrage.
Unusually for the Public Theatre, whose bread and butter is doing variations (whether it was last year’s Julius Caesar, where Caesar was played as a thinly disguised Trump or 1990’s The Taming of the Shrew, which was re-set as a Western), this version of Othello was completely straight, with the costumes and settings exactly right for the 14th-century Italy setting of the play.
Just an excellent production that sadly is only running for a couple more days, so if you want to go see it, gotta do it today, tomorrow, or over the weekend. Information on how to get tickets here.