By Michael Hillyer
Of the many pleasures that living in New York affords, the Public Theatre’s Free Shakespeare in the Park during the summer is high among them. The whole process has evolved and improved over the years; it used to be an all-day affair, but nowadays the “line” in the park starts at 8AM and the ticket vouchers for that evening’s performance are handed out at noon. Regardless, it has always been the custom to make a day of it, so that waiting in line becomes part of the fun: think picnic in the park, ending with a play.
I enjoyed the picnic part of this excursion, but not the play, I am afraid. Whatever happened to the star-power cast lists for Shakespeare in the Park? After attending the Ruben Santiago-Hudson production of OTHELLO currently on the boards at the Delacorte, all I can say is that the wattage is low. “Put out the light, and then, put out the light” is not usually addressed to the casting director.
The first time I went to Shakespeare in Central Park was to see THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD with my next-door neighbor, the then up-and-coming Howard McGillin. He was joined in the cast by Betty Buckley, Cleo Laine, Joe Grifasi, Larry Shue and George Rose; I sat right behind Joe Papp and Wilford Leach, the director, and Howard gave me a ride home after. The last time I was at the Delacorte was to bring my son to see our old friend Jimmy Smits in TWELFTH NIGHT, who was performing in a cast that boasted the additional talents of Christopher Lloyd and Oliver Platt; we sat behind Judd Hirsch and half the cast of TAXI. The last time I saw OTHELLO at the Delacorte, it was a stunning production that starred Raul Julia and Christopher Walken. That was almost 30 years ago. I guess I had it good and didn’t know it. The version presently running in Central Park is a big disappointment in almost every department.
Billed in the Public’s press release as “Shakespeare’s most urgent and relevant tragedy today,” this OTHELLO does little to further that case. For the most part, any interpretive directorial choices Ruben Santiago-Hudson might have made aren’t much present, and the result is a tame, by-the-book production. Even the staging is formulaic, textbook stuff, the kind of physical mounting one would expect of a college show, which it pretty much resembles.
Neither has Mr. Santiago-Hudson been able to get much help from his designers. The set is a flat series of arches straight across the upstage area, like the fragment of a cloister that, with ponderous exertion on the part of the scene change crew, moves onto an angle: “wow” is not the word. The resulting design is basically a bare stage dressed with an ambient upstage motif to serve as a visual background, and the costumes are so uniformly similar in pattern and color that it looks as if the characters have been to the same Venetian haberdashery, and come away with the same outfit.
In the title role, Chukwudi Iwuji is grandstanding, not acting: chewing up scenery that isn’t even there. He seems to be playing the tragedy, not the character: at the performance I attended, he was so far over the top he had actually started to come down the other side.
Apart from some early flashes of anger, Corey Stoll’s stolid interpretation of Iago would seem to be a straightforward nod to the character’s unbridled ambition; he is apparently goading Othello into a jealous fury simply to advance his own fortunes, and seems to take no joy whatsoever in the destruction he unleashes. Mr. Stoll is an excellent actor, but this is one of the few roles in Shakespeare where “playing it straight” is probably not such a great idea, but who am I to say? I can still remember Mr. Walken bringing down the house with the “Fill thy purse with money” speech. In Mr. Stoll’s deadpan delivery of the same speech? Crickets. Actual crickets.
I am disappointed that this production was unable to rise to the level of its subject matter. You would think, in a world where #blacklivesmatter is close to the fore of the national discussion, finally, that this old tale – of a black man driven to destruction in a white man’s world – would have lit a fire somewhere. But, alas, this curiously anemic production of OTHELLO resists it own call to urgency and relevance.
The Public Theatre, Free Shakespeare In The Park, OTHELLO, by William Shakespeare, directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Scenic Design by Rachel Hauk, Costume Design by Toni-Leslie James, Lighting Design by Jane Cox, Sound Design Jessica Paz. With 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. The Delacorte Theater in Central Park is accessible by entering at 81st Street and Central Park West or at 79th Street and Fifth Avenue. Through June 24.