Last year’s Public Theater production of Julius Caesar for Shakespeare in the Park shined a spotlight on the enmeshing of American politics and the country’s dramatic arts, far beyond the typical presidential lampooning of Saturday Night Live. Even if Caesar’s “tragic arc does not exactly make tyrannicide look like the wisest of strategies,” the 2017 Central Park staging of a Trump assassination, even on this deep-blue island off the coast of Real America, proved too scandalous for the Public Theater’s corporate sponsors, who themselves perform on a national stage.
It’s not surprising, then, that this year’s Shakespeare in the Park production of Othello, which opened on Tuesday, takes a vanilla approach to the Moor of Venice’s tale, skipping bleached bouffants and Fifth Avenue glitz and instead staging Desdemona’s demise under spare Gothic archways. There is, to be sure, no overt political commentary over which Delta and Bank of America might be pressured to distance themselves from the Delacorte Theater. But even if Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s Othello doesn’t make its American political resonances as heavy-handed as last year’s Caesar, it has even greater capacity for apt social commentary. Despite a staging devoid of modernizing aesthetic, the Public Theater’s Othello urgently draws the audience’s focus to America’s pressing issues of disunion and suspicion.
Othello is, perhaps most simply, a play about persuasion, where the title character (Chukwudi Iwuji), manipulated by the sinister Iago, learns to distrust his utterly innocent wife for infidelities she did not and would not commit. It’s striking how quickly this psychological metamorphosis into rage occurs in this production, perhaps a deliberate choice by Santiago-Hudson and Iwuji, but it’s a transformation that feels less jarring in our contemporary social climate. Even if 2018’s political outrage is often justified, the ease with which we now slip into suspicion and bad faith makes Othello seem less a story about deception than one about indignation that just happens to be misdirected.
These days, in other words, we are often quick to assume the worst in others, barely in need of an Honest Iago to convince us of the case.
The production’s Iago (Corey Stoll) provides the show’s few moments of comedy, mostly through deadpan deliveries, and his entertaining rhetoric is itself a kind of morality tale for twenty-first century viewers. Entertainment, we have learned over these past few years, is a double-edged rapier: providing levity when our headlines provide nothing of it, but catalyzing suspicion and bickering when we need anything but. More than any Caesarian caricature of Trump, Stoll’s Iago prompts the audience to reflect upon our contemporary politics through an interrogation of those who persuade us and their motives. Do our friends and compatriots propel dispassionate inquiry and cultivate an attitude of dignity toward others? Or do our sources of information stage pseudo-syllogisms, presenting them in the service of deception? Indeed, when Stoll’s Iago prompts our laughter, we’re reminded how enjoyable embracing such lies can be.
Our own media and broader political culture are drenched in “demonstrable falsehoods,” and Othello shows us how eager we sometimes are to believe them, even those as wispy as a handkerchief. The play, moreover, asks us to guard against dissembling and irony, those most effective strategies for dissolving unions, whether matrimonial or political. More than the Roman curia of those ancient conspirators, the Gothic arches of Venice might be the most fitting backdrop for contemporary culture’s political drama. It remains to be seen, however, how our own play ends. Can our political parties unlearn mutual suspicion? Must we, cocksure of our own righteousness, smother our Desdemonas?