Corey Stoll is back for his third consecutive year of doing Shakespearean tragedy in Central Park as part of the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park series, following his performances as Ulysses in “Troilus and Cressida” and Brutus in “Julius Caesar” (yes, that production, where the title character became a literal depiction of President Trump, leading to controversy, mayhem and protests).
Stoll is now playing the definitive supervillain Iago in a new production of Shakespeare’s “Othello,” directed by Tony-winning actor Ruben Santiago-Hudson (“Seven Guitars”) and co-starring Chukwudi Iwuji (“The Low Road”) as Othello and Heather Lind (“Turn: Washington’s Spies”) as Desdemona. Stoll spoke with us about the play.
How did you get involved with ‘Othello’?
I got a call and met with Ruben, and how can you not do Iago, especially with Chuk? I had just seen him in “The Low Road” [at the Public Theater].
What’s it like to play Iago?
He has an intense drive. The whole first half of the play, Iago is just pushing everything forward. I barely get a break. He also has a certain mysteriousness of motivation.
What do you think is the real motivation behind Iago’s villainy?
He has so many reasons for the mayhem that he brings that they seem to contradict each other — or at least makes you question if any one of them is the real reason . . . The big question anyone playing Iago has to decide is if the soliloquies are truthful. I think, in general, the rule is that when someone is speaking to the audience, they are speaking the truth as they know it . . . I found the only way I could go forward was to have him be truthful to the audience and, hence, unaware of himself.
How does Iago compare with Brutus?
They couldn’t be more different. Brutus almost sort of fetishizes his decency and consistency. And he’s one of the elites of Rome and is looked up to by his peers. Iago is never satisfied with what he has. He has a certain degree of authority in place, but he has not achieved what he thinks he deserves . . . He’s sort of doomed to unhappiness and dissatisfied, and so he lashes out at people. His technique for getting what he wants is to divide. Wherever he goes, he creates this insider-outsider dynamic.
Do you see any parallels in Iago’s behavior and rhetoric to today’s divisive political climate?
Absolutely . . . Any good con man appeals to the worst part in you. A con man is not necessarily going to get very far appealing to your sense of charity and love. He finds the part of you that is governed by fear and suspicion and increases that. There’s only one major instance where Iago creates a different reality — when he puts the handkerchief in Cassio’s room. Everything else is about reframing the way someone looks at something. He describes the way that Desdemona and Cassio are interacting in a way that is suspicious and sends Othello on his way, but with this new sort of framing device.
How literal will this production be in terms of making connections to the present day?
This production does not spell those out any more than I think is inherent in the material . . . It is a period piece — Renaissance Italy . . . I think we are all, as a culture, so steeped in our current cultural, political moment that it is impossible not to see those parallels.
Looking back, how do you feel about ‘Julius Caesar’ and the turbulent reactions that it inspired?
I’m very proud of our work on “Julius Caesar.” Lost amid the conversation at the time was the quality of the production. There was an urgency and a clarity that is rare and difficult to achieve.
What keeps you coming back to Shakespeare in the Park?
It’s magical to be outside in the spring and summer in New York. And the audiences are generous and eager to be there. There’s a sense that this is an event above and beyond just doing a Shakespeare play. This is part of the cultural life of the city, and so it feels very central and alive. As a venue to perform in, there is something wonderfully unperfectable about it. There will always be something that goes wrong. A plane goes overhead at the wrong moment. Raccoons fight over scraps. Someone brings a crying baby . . . And I think once you give up the idea of giving a perfect performance or having the perfect show, you can really appreciate what is there.
‘Othello’ begins previews at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park on May 29 and runs through June 24. Visit publictheater.org for info on obtaining free tickets.