When I love thee not, chaos is come again.
Under the setting sun and, on a clear night, the evening stars, the Public Theater’s telling of Othello begins with a stage that is bare but for rows of symmetrical arches suggestive of a Venetian piazza: Order elegantly framing the chaos soon to be unleashed in the mind of our doomed hero, who speaks those fateful words.
Othello (Chukwudi Iwuji), at first so besotted with his bride Desdemona (Heather Lind), will be led to his undoing by a deliciously manipulative Iago (House of Cards‘ Corey Stoll). Director Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s confidently unfussy staging, and many of the performances by a cast that includes several Public Theater regulars, are a thrill to witness. Those warm stone arches (scenic design by Rachel Hauck) are timeless; the lush costumes (by Toni-Leslie James) — gold and brocade for the women, laced leather for the men — feel appropriate to the early 17th century, the period when Othello was first performed.
In other words, there is no time travel, no too-clever rethink. It can be effective and fun to stage Shakespeare in modern times — Sam Gold’s terrific 2017 New York Theatre Workshop take put David Oyelowo’s Othello in a present-day army barracks with “Hotline Bling” on the soundtrack. But a temporal update is no guarantee that a young or new-to-Shakespeare audience will get it. More essential is an ease with the words, in whatever era they are delivered, that puts the listener also at ease. As villianous Iago, Stoll (Brutus in last year’s Trump-era Julius Caesar) brings a comic’s timing and puts over even very well known lines (“your daughter and the Moor are making the beast with two backs,” “jealousy… is the green-eyed monster”) as if he is speaking extemporaneously. It is not only a delight to watch, it is a boon to anyone who avoids Shakespeare for fear of missing the meaning. He knows where the laughs are in this tragedy, and when the bodies pile up at the show’s end, he has somehow made us culpable — we were laughing along, even cheering for the ruthless plan he had laid out to succeed.
There’s a particularly affecting scene in which he plants the idea that the Moor’s wife has been unfaithful to him with an officer Othello had promoted over Iago. Listen to Stoll, but also watch the open face of the gifted Iwuji’s Othello, as he evolves from devotion to concern to doubt to jealousy to rage with each of Iago’s suggestions. The dynamic is that of someone introducing controlled drops of poison into a beaker of water and watching it go dark and cloudy. The chemistry between the two men — one who knows they are enemies, one who believes they are honest friends — is more potent than that between either man and his wife.
As a spirited if somewhat unfocused Desdemona, Lind does her best work late in the play, after those dark clouds overtake her husband’s mind, when she seems to know her time is up. Notable in this assured cast is Alison Wright (The Americans) as Emila, Iago’s wife, who speaks up for Desdemona, though belatedly. (Were this an updated telling, perhaps they’d find the hashtag #BelieveWomen helpful here, much as Romeo and Juliet might have benefitted from texting.) But, alas for them — and happily for us — this is a traditional take on the Moor, with all the trimmings, including clanking choreographed sword-fights to make Inigo Montoya cheer, and at least one death scene that, even though you know it is coming, takes you by surprise. A