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‘Othello,’ Starring Raul Julia and Christopher Walken, Opens in Central Park

June 28, 1991 GMT

NEW YORK (AP) _ Joseph Papp’s 36-play, multiyear Shakespeare marathon has reached the halfway point with a straightforward, uninspired revival of ″Othello,″ starring Raul Julia as the Moor.

The Public Theater production, which opened Thursday in Central Park, boasts one peculiarity - an eccentric performance by Christopher Walken as an Iago who would be more at home on Brooklyn’s Flatbush Avenue than in Shakespeare’s Venice or Cyprus.

Walken, sporting a black leather jacket and tight gray pants, plays one of the theater’s greatest villains as a nasty street punk. Iago’s cruel genius is defined by Walken’s swagger and a tough-guy accent more appropriate for ″The Godfather.″

The result: an Iago of less than chilling proportions, a miscalculation that throws the play out of whack for much of the evening. His machinations are more the stuff of macho posturing that the embodiment of pure evil.

The other major performances, starting with Julia’s Othello, are more traditional. Julia’s tragic hero has a commanding presence and the strong voice to handle the poetry. But the actor starts at a fevered pitch, then has no place to go.

It makes Othello’s transformation from loving helpmate to jealous husband not very distinctive or even interesting.

Kathryn Meisle, looking like a young Glynis Johns, is an appealing, even touching Desdemona. She captures the woman’s innocence and purity without making her seem naive or plain simple-minded.

Mary Beth Hurt brings an authority to Emilia, Iago’s wife and Desdemona’s maid, that elevates the character to more than just another supporting player.

Joe Dowling, a former artistic director of Dublin’s Abbey Theater, has staged the play with few flourishes and no surprises.

The best he can do is a bright white spotlight which illuminates Iago during his malevolent soliloquies. The fight scenes and the festivities are equally perfunctory, performed with little enthusiasm.

Other cast members range from the professional, like Michel R. Gill’s strong Cassio, to the overdone, like Jake Weber’s wide-eyed and unconvincing Roderigo.

In the end, this ″Othello″ settles for competent rather than daring. And when it tries something different - like Walken’s misguided portrait of Iago - it backfires.

The production is not up to the theatricality and excitement that the passions of this great play demand.