by Elizabeth Ahlfors
David Oyelowo and Daniel Craig in Othello.
Photo: Chad Batka/New York Theatre Workshop
Daniel Craig and David Oyelowo are stand-outs in a galvanizing production of Shakespeare's Othello at the New York Theatre Workshop. Under Sam Gold's perceptive direction, David Oyelowo plays Othello, the proud Moorish general, lauded for his heroic war deeds until he collides with the ruthless Iago (Daniel Craig), whose sadistic machinations result in the hero's tragic but inevitable downfall.
With text consultant, Michael Sexton, Gold (Fun House) staged the 1604 Shakespeare classic with a present-day dynamism, textured with emotion, female abuse, and war in the Middle East. With the action takings place in a compact rough plywood barracks, the text is underscored with evil and jealousy. Gold's brisk pace focuses on the two main characters, each meticulously defined.
Othello is the moral authority in this play, a respected general, calm and lacking arrogance. He incites a sharp resentment in Iago when Othello bypasses Iago and chooses Cassio as his lieutenant. Since Othello is secretly married to Desdemona, young daughter of a Venetian Senator Brabantio (Glenn Fitzgerald), Iago contrives to alert the Senator of his daughter's marriage to the Moor, who is of a different class and race.
Othello, however, is a man with a "free and open disposition" and certain that his race would not diminish the respect he has earned. Iago, still determined to destroy Othello, manipulates his lackey, Roderigo, a former suitor of Desdemona, into spreading a humiliating innuendo that Desdemona is sleeping with Cassio. It is this false "green-eyed monster" of jealousy that eventually evokes Othello's fall.
While the cast is strong and multi-racial, this production is ruled by the magnetic Oyelowo and Craig. Their eloquence glows with fire, their acting robust and rhythmic. Craig is hard, icy and merciless. Oyelowo (Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma), a stocky Othello with a slight African accent, is physically and emotionally imposing, reaching heights of passion when he embraces Iago's merciless lies and kills Desdemona. Then overcome with guilt, Othello kills himself.
The cool sophisticated demeanor of Daniel Craig (a.k.a. James Bond) is no less outstanding in his multi-layered portrayal of Iago, a cool conniver, in control of his emotions. His face is shadowed with nuances as he watches others around him and calculates his next maneuver. He affects a macho charm and sardonic wit that is at first attractive although it masks his contempt for everyone. Revenge lives within him with fierce determination. He leaves a trail of blood without a second thought, killing even his silly pawn Roderigo (Matthew Maher) and his own wife, Emilia.
The secondary characters emerge capably. Rachel Brosnahan is the spirited Desdemona, a mix of sweet confidence in love with her husband. Emilia, Iago's wife, is played with a healthy dash of impudence by Marsha Stephanie Blake. The handsome Cassio is portrayed with sympathy by Finn Wittrock.
Important is the intimacy of this claustrophobic production. Played in the round, the theater is lined with bleached wood with four rows of padded bleachers on three sides around the stage. The audience, just steps away, is drawn into the all-male flavor of Andrew Lieberman's plywood barracks with dingy mattresses and properties designer, Kathy Fabian, tosses in guitars, cell phones, gym equipment and radios. Soldiers carry AK rifles and wear David Zinn's fatigues, baseball caps or undershirts. The sound design is by Bray Poor and Jane Cox provides the sterile glare of LED lighting, although a sizable chunk of the first act is performed completely in the dark.
Othello has been performed and appreciated for centuries with questionable interpretations of Iago's evil nature, Venetian society, and Othello's sudden unreasonable jealousy. The interpretations continue but there is no question that this exhilarating production with its charismatic lead actors and sharp direction is worthy as one of the finest.
Also appearing in Totaltheater.com
NY Theater Workshop
79 East 4th Street. NYC
Previewed: Nov. 22, 2016. Opening: Dec. 12, 2016 Closing: Jan. 18, 2017
Written by: William Shakespeare.
Dramaturg/Text consultant: Michael Sexton.
Directed by: Sam Gold
Running time: 3 hours. 10 minutes. One intermission
Suitable for ages 12+