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While filming Richard Eyre’s 2018 BBC television adaptation of King Lear, Chukwudi Iwuji, who was playing the king of France, was told by Sir Anthony Hopkins, who was starring in the title role, “You must be ready for your Othello now.” Iwuji proves he is more than ready in Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s gripping, emotional production that opened last night at the Delacorte in Central Park as part of the Public Theater’s annual Shakespeare in the Park presentation. Born and raised in Nigeria, later educated in Ethiopia and England, and now living in New York City, Iwuji, a Royal Shakespeare Company associate artist, has built up quite a resume at the Public, portraying the narrator and Enobarbus in Anthony and Cleopatra at the Anspacher in 2014, as Edgar in King Lear at the Delacorte that same year with John Lithgow as the monarch, taking the lead in Hamlet in the Public Theater’s Mobile Unit abbreviated 2016 version, and being nominated for awards as slave John Blanke in Bruce Norris’s The Low Road at the Anspacher earlier this year. (He also played the duke of Buckingham in Richard III at BAM in 2012.) In a role previously played at the Delacorte by James Earl Jones in 1964 and Raul Julia in 1979 and 1991, Iwuji might be shorter in stature and more naturally handsome than most actors who portray Othello, but he commands the role from the very moment he appears onstage, displaying a regal charm and joie de vivre even as he is instantly hustled by his devious ensign, Iago, played here by the tall, thin, bald Corey Stoll with a sarcastic and cynical sense of humor that is often laugh-out-loud funny.
Tony-winning actor and director Santiago-Hudson (Jitney, Paradise Blue) keeps the focus on romance, particularly the deep, passionate love between Othello and Desdemona (Heather Lind), who have just gotten married against the wishes of her father, senator Brabantio (Miguel Perez), contrasting sharply with the much colder relationship between Iago and his wife, Emilia (Alison Wright). A Venetian military hero fighting the Turks, Othello has complete trust in Iago, who is out to destroy him, using and abusing his right-hand man, Roderigo (Motell Foster), in the process. Iago’s plan involves driving Othello into a jealous rage by convincing him that Desdemona is being unfaithful with Othello’s loyal lieutenant, Cassio (Babak Tafti), whose girlfriend, Bianca (Flor De Liz Perez), is no mere prostitute. In Santiago-Hudson’s vision, Desdemona, Bianca, and Emilia are strong female characters who are quick to stand up for themselves. Wright brings the house down in a late, fiery speech that gets to the heart of the truth. The excellent ensemble also includes Peter Jay Fernandez as the duke of Venice, Andrew Hovelson as Lodovico, Thomas Schall as Montano, and Peter Van Wagner as Gratiano, the cast moving through Rachel Hauck’s relatively basic but effective set, two walls with gothic archways, with a small tower on either side. Toni-Leslie James’s period costumes have a punk edge, consisting of lots of black leather and cool accessories on the men and lush gowns on the women.
“Rude am I in my speech / And little blessed with the soft phrase of peace,” Othello says early on, but in actuality Iwuji speaks Shakespeare’s words with such poetic beauty and skill that it evokes the sound of the birds singing in the trees as night falls. Iwuji and Lind (The Merchant of Venice, Incognito) are electric together; at one point Othello lifts his arm out to her and it is magical. Meanwhile Stoll (Intimate Apparel, Plenty), in his third consecutive year doing Shakespeare in the Park (following Troilus and Cressida and Julius Caesar), and Emmy nominee Wright (The Americans, Sneaky Pete) are also a dynamic pair as their characters’ marriage heads toward a giant abyss of lies. Of course, even with the concentration on romance and the emergent power of the women, as well as the undercurrent of racism that is always simmering, the success of the play ultimately relies on the chemistry between the actors playing Othello and Iago, who have previously been portrayed by such mixed-race pairs as David Oyelowo and Daniel Craig, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Ewan McGregor, Laurence Fishburne and Kenneth Branagh, Paul Robeson and José Ferrer, Jones and Christopher Plummer, and Julia and Christopher Walken. “O grace! O heaven forgive me! / O monstrous world! Take note, take note, O world: / To be direct and honest is not safe,” the conniving Iago says. “Nay, stay. Thou shouldst be honest,” the too-easily-convinced Othello replies. Iwuji and Stoll have now become part of the canon, and they well earn their place in this stirring, elegant production.