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A CurtainUp Review
By Jacob Horn
Today, Othello engages with race and gender in a world vastly changed from even a year and a half ago. The current production at the Delacorte, directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, most clearly evinces the influence of the #MeToo moment, foregrounding violence against its female characters in direct ways.
It's no surprise that the women of the play are sorely mistreated. Anyone who has seen Othello knows that the play hinges on Othello (Chukwudi Iwuji) murdering Desdemona (Heather Lind), falsely believing her unfaithful. But Santiago-Hudson's staging also emphasizes the troublesome relationship between the manipulative Iago (Corey Stoll) and his wife Emilia (Alison Wright).
Lind and Wright skillfully, and at times heartbreakingly, convey the struggles of their characters as they consider their supposed duty to their husbands against the iniquities to which these men subject them. The violence they endure here, and to a lesser extent Bianca (Flor De Liz Perez) as well, is depicted more directly than in many productions.
The prime example is Desdemona's death, which is typically hidden behind a pillow. This staging (which I will refrain from describing in detail) inverts the norm, turning Othello away from the audience and showing us only her eyes in a moment of abject horror. Emilia's revelation of her role in her mistress's death prompts her to speak out forcefully against her husband, but she too suffers as a result. The violence here is less graphic than in an episode of Law and Order, say, but it is generally more startling and difficult to watch. Santiago-Hudson uses the immediacy and intimacy of the theater to make these moments so affecting. This is intensified by embracing a comedic take elsewhere, primarily in Iago's soliloquies. When this playfully tricky character reveals his truly villainous side, it creates jarring tonal shifts.
Stoll is able to make such adjustments seamlessly, further proving himself a nimble performer after several successful turns over the last few seasons at the Delacorte. He stands out as one of the most easily comprehensible Shakespeare performers around. His manner of speech and attitude effectively convey the meaning of the language even to those less comfortable with Elizabethan text.
Iwuji, meanwhile, takes a more physical approach to his character, embodying Othello's fall in his posture and energy. As he descends into Iago's trap, he hunches over and crouches towards the ground. His face conveys horror and fear, while his voice vacillates between ferocity and fragility. The delicate side to his Othello crucially refutes a racist interpretation of the character as beastial.
But discomfort remains. Othello is yet another of Shakespeare's works that, while progressive in its time, is troublesome in a modern context. "The Moor's" racial otherness is, in places, connected with his violence towards his white wife, as when Emilia contrasts Desdemona's "more angel" with Othello's "blacker devil." This plays into racist fears that have long plagued American culture, such as those on full display in D. W. Griffith's 1915 Birth of a Nation.
It is perhaps ideal then, that the production remains set long ago, with no modernizing gimmicks or gambits (such as those that drew negative attention to last year's controversial Julius Caesar). The restrained scenic design by Rachel Hauck is built around a series of medieval arches. Toni-Leslie James's attentive costumes similarly evoke the middle ages, with additional details in the hair and wig design by Matthew B. Armentrout.
Lighting design by Jane Cox and sound by Jessica Paz are responsive not only to the play itself but also to the Delacorte's environs. Cox sensitvely integrates and reacts to the natural change in light as the sun sets, while Paz, with the help of compositions by Derek Wieland, uses evocative sound effects to move the audience away from the present-day, urban setting.
Because the production makes no effort to modernize Othello by design, it is all the more powerful to nonetheless recognize the present in it. When Emilia insists on her right to speak against a man who holds power over her, for example, it is difficult not to think of the many women and men who have recently spoken out against sexual abuse and the power structures that allow it.
At its core, this Othello in the Park remains focused on its deeply flawed protagonist and vile antagonist (arguably Shakespeare's best-crafted villain). Iwuji and Stoll give strong anchor performances in these rolls. But where this production feels most distinct is in its attention paid to the two leading female characters, with Lind and Wright rising to the challenge. In expanding the scope of the play, Santiago-Hudson offers a powerful Othello thoughtfully situated in the midst of today's concerns.
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by William Shakespeare
Directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson
with Kevin Rico Angulo (Ensemble), Christopher Cassarino (Ensemble), Peter Jay Fernandez (Duke of Venice), Motell Foster (Roderigo), Andrew Hovelson (Lodovico), Chukwudi Iwuji (Othello), David Kenner (Ensemble), Heather Lind (Desdemona), Tim Nicolai (Ensemble), Flor De Liz Perez (Bianca), Miguel Perez (Brabantio), Lily Santiago (Ensemble), Thomas Schall (Montano), Caroline Siewert (Ensemble), Corey Stoll (Iago), Babak Tafti (Cassio), Allen Tedder (Ensemble), Peter van Wagner (Gratiano), and Alison Wright (Emilia)
Scenic Design: Rachel Hauck
Costume Design: Toni-Leslie James
Lighting Design: Jane Cox
Sound Design: Jessica Paz
Hair and Wig Design: Matthew B. Armentrout
Composer: Derek Wieland
Fight Director: Thomas Schall
Movement Director: Adesola Osakalumi
Producing Stage Manager: James Latus
Running Time: 2 hours and 50 minutes with an intermission
Presented by the Public Theater's Free Shakespeare in the Park at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park (enter at West 81st Street or East 79th Street)
Tickets: Free tickets are distributed each day beginning at noon at the Delacorte, at the Public Theater (425 Lafayette Street at Astor Place), and by TodayTix digital lottery. Tickets are also distributed in the boroughs on select dates. See www.publictheater.org/Free-Shakespeare-in-the-Park/ for more information.
From 5/29/18; opening 6/18/08; closing 6/24/18
Performance times: Nightly at 8 pm; no performance on June 19
Reviewed by Jacob Horn based on 6/15/2018 performance
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