‘Othello’ runs at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park through June 24. Visit publictheater.org to find out how to obtain free tickets.
It was turning out to be a decent Shakespeare in the Park production of “Othello” — and then, bit by bit, it fell apart.
In Shakespeare’s tragedy, the black Venetian general Othello is painstakingly deceived by the villainous, low-ranking officer Iago into believing that Othello’s new wife Desdemona has been unfaithful, cheating on him with his lieutenant Cassio.
“Othello” has not been staged by the Public Theater as part of a Shakespeare in the Park season since 1991 (with Raul Julia and Christopher Walken). Recent Off-Broadway productions have featured Daniel Craig as Iago (2016) and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Iago (2009).
The play is challenging to produce today in light of its manifestations of racial prejudice (which is also the case with “The Merchant of Venice”). Tony-winning actor Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who directs this production, de-emphasizes Othello’s racial identity by casting another black actor (Motell Foster) in the supporting role of Roderigo (a luckless suitor to Desdemona).
This is a straightforward, period-dress production of the play, set in the 17th-century Mediterranean, with opulent costumes, simple scenery and bits of swordplay. The synthesized, fanfare-style background music (which sounds like it came out of a 1980s adventure flick) could be better.
The first half of the three-hour production runs smoothly, with fine performances from Corey Stoll (“House of Cards”) as an expressive and jovial Iago and Chukwudi Iwuji (“The Low Road” at the Public Theater) as an unfazed, unusually young Othello. Alison Wright (“The Americans”) also stands out as Iago’s outspoken wife Emilia.
But following intermission, as Iago’s scheme to destroy Othello rushes to its bitter end, the production loses its drive and dramatic tension, and the famous final scene is especially ineffective.
Iwuji has difficulty portraying Othello’s psychological descent besides looking freaked out. There are also some self-conscious acting choices from Heather Lind, who tries to emphasize Desdemona’s confusion and anger while facing the increasingly turbulent Othello. Lind also has difficulty singing Desdemona’s “Willow Song.”
One can’t help but think back on last summer’s “Julius Caesar,” which ignited controversy by having the title character portrayed as a Donald Trump caricature. That park production may have been messy and of questionable taste, but it was a lot more interesting and noteworthy than this “Othello.”