While the Othello at the New York Theatre Workshop can be uncomfortable and even annoying, it is impossible for me to dismiss Sam Gold’s often startlingly effective production, even when David Oyelowo and Daniel Craig’s ultimately thrilling performances are initially in danger of being upstaged by the lighting and the seats.
Gold and his set designer Andrew Lieberman have transformed the East Village theater into a modern military barracks, for the audience as well as the actors. We sit on unfinished wooden bleachers on three sides of where the stage would normally be. In its place is a wooden floor littered with unadorned mattresses, duffle bags, barbells, laptops and iPads, radios and guitars, along with soldiers idly playing them. The entire auditorium has become a wooden box, complete with a claustrophobically lowered ceiling of planks fitted with harsh white lights – not standard theatrical lighting, but floodlights, and florescent tubes.
Once the play begins, however, those lights shut off completely for some 20 minutes, as Iago (Craig) describes to Roderigo his resentment for Othello having promoted Cassio as his lieutenant over himself; Othello’s secret marriage to Desdemona; and Iago’s plans to take revenge by convincing Othello that his wife is unfaithful. To clarify: For this entire scene that lays out Iago’s motivations and previews the plot, we are in total darkness.
For the next scene, abruptly, the lights flash back in full glare. A scene later we are in darkness again. Sometimes even when the theater is lit, it’s only with a flashlight. It’s as if the creative team is borrowing some tricks from classical composers who constructed compositions to be punctuated by crashing cymbals or booming bass drums to make sure the listeners stay awake. More to the point, we are forced to feel part of the same environment that the characters inhabit.
On the surface, this Othello does not seem a traditional production. Several characters sing Drake’s “Hotline Bling.” Someone uses a modern fire extinguisher to break up a fight. The color-blind casting requires a bit of mental jujitsu, since Othello the Moor is supposed to be isolated because of his difference from everybody else in Venice. David Zinn costumes the women in casual wear, the kind that a military wife might wear when at a beach house.
But let’s put all this in context. The last so-called Othello I saw, performing through March at the Westside Theater is entitled Othello The Remix, a rap adaptation that used Shakespeare’s plot, but none of his words.
Beneath Sam Gold’s attention-grabbing choices in the Othello at the New York Theatre Workshop, in the last of its three hours, we are left with Shakespeare’s words performed by a first-rate cast. Daniel Craig, a British actor best known as the most blunt and muscular in the James Bond franchise of films, is a blunt and muscular Iago. David Oyewolo, a British-Nigerian actor best known for his portray of Martin Luther King, Jr. in the film Selma, is a staggeringly expressive Othello. Both actors, with long experience on the stage, are technically proficient — Oyewolo affects a slight African accent, for example, which seems a conscious choice to emphasize his outsider status. But there is a visceral connection here, with each other, and with the audience.
It’s natural to focus on the two movie stars, and they deserve the attention. But part of what makes the performances impressive is the way they blend in with the supporting cast, whose standouts include a good and sexy Cassio in Finn Wittrock (stellar as Happy in the 2012 Broadway production of Death of a Salesman, before launching a screen career with Unbroken, The Big Short etc.), a comically dim-witted Roderigo by Matthew Maher (who was great in The Flick), Marsha Stephanie Blake as Iago’s wife, whose final scene is chilling and magnificent.
Indeed, the final 20 minutes or so of Othello in general excuses any discomfort that preceded it, and when at the end the audience shot up to give the show a standing ovation, I’m sure it wasn’t (just) because it was such a pleasure to get out of those seats.
Othello is on stage at the New York Theatre Workshop (79 E 4th St, between Second Avenue and the Bowery, New York, NY 10003) through January 18, 2017.
Tickets and details
Othello, written by William Shakespeare; Directed by Sam Gold, set designed by Andrew Lieberman, costumes by David Zinn, lighting by Jane Cox, sound by Bray Poor . Cast: David Oyelowo, Daniel Craig, David Wilson Barnes, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Rachel Brosnahan, Blake DeLong, Glenn Fitzgerald, Slate Holmgren, Anthony Michael Lopez, Matthew Maher, Nikki Massoud, Kyle Vincent Terry and Finn Wittrock. Produced by New York Theatre Workshop . Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell