Of the many pleasures that living in New York affords, the Public Theater’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 Theater, 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 a production of 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.
Apart from some early flashes of anger, Corey Stoll’s stolid, humorless 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. 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.
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.
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: just, wow! 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.
This curiously anemic production of Othello fails to have much of an impact, visually or emotionally, and at the end of an unrewarding evening, we joined a sizeable posse of fellow theatregoers in a pleasant stroll, out past the amazingly long line for the ladies room, and straight out of Central Park.
(Photo by Joan Marcus)
What the popular press says...
"Watching the Public Theater’s new “Othello” is like being on a blind date that, while perfectly pleasant, is never going to ignite into passion. Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s elegantly staged production, which opened on Monday night at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, is good-looking, well-spoken and intelligent, as easy on the ears as it is on the eyes. But you know that you’re not going to be dreaming about it later, or wishing that you could see it again. It’s a picturesque, nicely paced show that engages without enthralling or unsettling."
Ben Brantley for New York Times
"Director Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s production is a revelation, galloping through three hours of drama without ever getting bogged down in exposition or stuffiness. And he’s aided by a design team — including Toni-Leslie James’ period costumes and Rachel Hauck’s simple set — that takes a similarly low-key and straight-forward approach to the material. This is a classic tale, well told."
Thom Geier for The Wrap
"Newcomers to Othello will certainly get the essence of the play in this mostly straightforward staging. And, of course, tickets are free. But those who have seen previous versions, such as the recent off-Broadway production starring an incendiary Daniel Craig and David Oyelowo, will likely feel that this presentation has little reason for being."
Frank Scheck for Hollywood Reporter
External links to full reviews from popular press...