Destruction is raised to the level of art in “Othello,” and audiences couldn’t ask for a more captivating creator of chaos than the Iago of Liev Schreiber, the latest and finest in this exemplary young actor’s growing gallery of Shakespeare performances for the Public Theater. Title notwithstanding, Shakespeare’s tragedy is dominated on the page and often on the stage by its nihilistic antihero, and such is the case with Doug Hughes’ clean-lined, efficient production. Keith David’s performance as the manipulated Moor has many fine attributes, but it ultimately lacks the grandeur to wrest the play from the cool, confident grasp of Schreiber’s bewitching Iago.
Schreiber, who has previously won major acclaim for his Iachimo (in “Cymbeline”) and his Hamlet in Public Theater productions, is the rare American actor of any generation who lives so comfortably inside the sound and sense of Shakespearean verse that centuries of developments in syntax, vocabulary and grammar seem to evaporate as soon as he opens his mouth. While some other actors merely bellow fancy language at us (here Jack Ryland’s overacted Brabantio is an egregious example), Schreiber seems to be whispering Iago’s thoughts clearly into our ear.
That’s a particularly happy aptitude for this inventive schemer, who makes the audience his unwilling confidante by way of some of Shakespeare’s richest soliloquies. The role is significantly larger than Othello’s, and one of the longest in the canon, but it’s also multifaceted and mysterious, and the great achievement of Schreiber’s Iago is that we can never pin him down.
At first he seems unhinged, as the show opens with a whirl of whispering voices inside his head (David Van Tieghem’s aggressive sound design and electronic music have both effectively unsettling and overbearing moments). A certain twitchiness, a straining of the neck as if to escape the sufferings of his skin, arises when Iago speaks of his humiliation at being passed over in favor of Cassio for promotion by Othello, and he seems equally disturbed at the rumor of his wife’s infidelity with the Moor. His eyes become slits, his voice takes on a seething, sullen tone when the subject of women arises.
But most of the time, Iago’s cool as a cucumber, a puppeteer pulling strings and taking a cheeky, casually chilling pleasure in doing so. The scene in which Iago languidly plants the suggestion of Desdemona’s unfaithfulness in Othello’s gullible heart is brilliantly played here by both actors. Throughout, as Iago flits between a kind of seething incipient madness and nearly diffident manipulation — his famous avowal “I am not what I am” made manifest — Schreiber’s seductive voice, his sly charm and sheer intelligence lend Iago’s machinations more than enough of the malignant fascination that are necessary to keep us from recoiling; on the contrary, when he’s offstage, and we’re watching his plots unfold without his sardonic commentary, we miss him. (The production’s sharp, expressionistic lighting design by Robert Wierzel also serves to emphasize the character’s centrality: The play ends with the spotlight not on the doomed lovers but on the shivering figure of Iago, for instance.)
Poised in opposition to the negative energy of Iago is the love between Othello and Desdemona, of course, and the piteousness of the play comes from our discovery of how easily the match is won by Iago’s wanton destructiveness. The play offers a sad commentary on the fragility of faith in the face of reason, of love when opposed by hate: Our hearts should break at the ease with which Othello’s great love for Desdemona is undone by the insinuating arguments and feeble “proofs” Iago puts before him.
Here Hughes’ production disappoints — it doesn’t give rise to real anguish. For the play to acquire the tragic dimension it needs to transfer our engagement from the mind of Iago to the heart of Othello, the profundity of Othello’s love and the paralyzing pain of its loss need to come across forcefully. It doesn’t quite, here.
David is in many respects a fine, respectable Othello. He cuts a virile figure, and the sensual attraction between his Othello and Kate Forbes’ serene, sensible and lovely Desdemona is palpably felt. He is an experienced, accomplished handler of Shakespearean verse, too, and has a baritone of supple richness to do it full musical justice.
Othello’s jittery unease as Iago’s poison works its way into his heart is effectively rendered, but as we listen to David’s handsome voice rise in anger or drop suddenly to a smooth basso aside, it’s often the sculpted phrases we hear, not the volcano of feeling behind them. The superficial nobility of the warrior and hero are here, but the greater nobility of the full-hearted lover, in which resides the character’s grandeur and significance, is not. As a result, Othello’s duping is a sad waste, but not quite tragic, so its consequences don’t carry the horrific force they should, despite Forbes’ fine work in the last scene.
The supporting cast, clad in Catherine Zuber’s handsome if somewhat generic 18th century garb, is competent. Becky Ann Baker’s Emilia is surprisingly lacking in color, as is, less surprisingly, Jay Goede’s Cassio (that’s a reflection on the character, not the actor). The set design by Neil Patel is an odd mixture whose cement pillars and walls sometimes recall contemporary Venice, Calif., more than Venice, Italy, and Cyprus.
But the evening belongs to Schreiber’s Iago, and he’s no less fascinating at the conclusion than the start. The character’s final lines, in answer to Othello’s demand to know the cause of his hate, are among the most bluntly stunning in Shakespeare. “Demand me nothing. What you know, you know./From this time forth I never will speak word.” Iago’s sudden silence is a rebuke to the comforting idea that human evil has a cause, and thus a cure. All we really know about Iago, in the end, is that he’s awful and he’s fascinating. And, thanks to the lucid complexity of Schreiber’s performance, he’s disturbingly real.