Keith David and Liev Schreiber in Othello(Photo: Michal Daniel)
Keith David and Liev Schreiber in Othello
(Photo: Michal Daniel)
Shakespeare's Othello should, of course, be called Iago. The Moor rarely holds the center of the piece, the rare exception being the film version of the play with Orson Welles as both star and director. So it should come as no surprise that, although Keith David gives a visceral performance as Othello in the new production at the Public Theater, he plays straight man to Liev Schreiber's coldly calculating Iago. Doug Hughes, former artistic director at the Long Wharf Theatre, tries to even the playing field between the two actors, but Shakespeare won't have it. This is still Iago's play.

There is a tendency, inevitable but unfair, to compare and contrast the performances in various Shakespeare productions; but how does this help readers who haven't seen Christopher Plummer's Iago or, more recently, Christopher Walken's? Each performance and each production must stand or fall on its own merits. In the case of the current Public Theater staging, both stand: The play is fully accessible, piercing in its impact, and Schreiber is as subtle as he is daring. If you saw him in Cymbeline at the Delacorte in Central Park or as Hamlet at the Public, you already know that he's as comfortable with Shakespeare's language as any Brit. The words flow from him as if from nature.

When all is said and done, Shakespeare is an actor's playwright; he writes great roles with wonderful language. But he's also a director's playwright, offering plenty of latitude for interpretation of his works. This new Othello, presented in the winningly intimate confines of the Anspacher Theater at the Public, gives Hughes the chance to tell the story in close-up. He uses the theater's aisles to great effect, the actors often speaking their asides to the patrons seated nearest them. There is little in the way of props or set design here--although Desdemona's deathbed, revealed beneath the floorboards, portends her grim destiny. It's as if the bed had always been there, awaiting her murder.

The drama surrounding Iago's machinations is enhanced by Robert Wierzel's striking and imaginative lighting design and David Van Tieghem's original music and sound design. These elements help create an atmosphere of mystery, suspense, and betrayal; for the most part, they substitute for any substantial sets. Then the cast, under Hughes' sharply defined direction, goes to work. The result is a fluid and fast-paced telling of the story with a heightened theatricality.

From the play's first scenes, the actors exemplify this production's immediacy and its bite. Jack Ryland is scintillating as Brabantio, the racist father of Desdemona; his outrage at his daughter's secret marriage to the Moor is volcanic. Christopher Evan Welch's Roderigo is ingratiatingly stupid, a delightfully credible dupe who serves as both comic relief and a crucial plot device. Then there's Kate Forbes' in the nearly impossible role of Desdemona. The character must be saintly in her devotion to Othello and still somehow be real enough for the audience to find her believable. That doesn't happen here; what we get instead is a performance dominated by Forbes' ample cleavage. (Catherine Zuber's costume design is as much a presence, in this case, as is Forbes.) Among the other major roles, Becky Ann Baker has an audience-pleasing earthiness as Emilia, Iago's wife. Jay Goede's Cassio, lieutenant to Othello (and another object of Iago's jealousy) seems to enrich the play at first with an interesting vulnerability. As the action progresses, however, it becomes obvious that what initially appeared to be a pained expression on his face is actually the way he looks all the time.

Speaking of jealousy: This production suggests that one of Iago's motivations for destroying Othello is his own secret and impossible love for Desdemona. It's not on the page, but it's on the stage in Schreiber's compelling, psychologically sound interpretation of the role. And that performance is what makes this a must-see production.

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[Click here to see Brian Scott Lipton's TheaterMania interview with Liev Schreiber.]