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A CurtainUp Review

O, beware, my lord, of jealousy;
It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock
The meat it feeds on.

— Iago.
Othello in New York Theater Works redesigned environment (photo by Chad Batka)
Like so many of his plays, Shakespeare's Othello was drawn from previously published sources, in this case a 16th Century short story entitled "Un Capitana Moro" (A Moorish Captain). Some early critics dismissed it as a bloody farce making too much ado about a lost handkerchief. But the cornucopia of themes (racism, love, jealousy, betrayal, revenge and repentance) and watching the Moor 's amazingly swift capitulation to the green monster and Iago's equally amazing display of unremitting villainy have insured Othello's place among Shakespeare's most durable plays.

Even before they became the driving force dictating a play's staging, Othello challenged directors to come up with interesting casting and relevant interpretations. The first casting innovation was to have a black actor play the Moor, instead of white actor doing so in various shades of make-up. That "standard" was broken by Ira Aldridge who moved to England to make his name and played Othello all over Europe and North America. (Lolita Chakrabarti's Red Velvet, a fascinating play about Aldridge, has been making the rounds of regional theaters, and I was lucky enough to a couple of years ago catch a production starring one of my favorite Shakespearan actors, John Douglas Thompson — review).

While black actors in the titular role have long been the norm, directors have found plenty of other ways to give Othello new life and make those who've seen it before eager for another viewing. It's therefore become some sort of unwritten rule to tinker with the play not just in terms of casting but setting and thematic focus.

I and my Curtainup colleagues have covered more than a dozen productions, with various interpretations, usually at least one a year somewhere. Last season, New York audiences had an opportunity to see a streamlined, operatic Sephardic Othello. This season we have two newly conceived and very original productions on offer.

Othello: The Remix is a fast-paced 80-minute hip-hop version with just four performers and its own text but remarkably true to Shakespeare's plot at the West Side Theater. The full-length, full-bodied, true-to-the text but highly innovative Othello now at New York Theatre Workshop is one of the season's hottest downtown tickets. That's because stage and screen stars David Oyelowo and Daniel Craig play the leads and Sam Gold, one of New York's most acclaimed young directors, is at the helm.

David Oyelowo as Othello and Daniel Craig as Iago (photo by Chad Batka)
To start with the ticket selling star performers, both are so good that there's none of the frequent upstaging of one by the other. Though Craig's Iago may have a slight edge in the first half, Oyelowo impressively captures the mix of brave warrior and innocent naive when it comes to his love life. And, by the time his General falls prey to the suspicions planted by his duplicitious second banana this is definitely a 2-star triumph.

The clarity with which both Oyelowo and Craig deliver their lines adds to the richness of the Bard's text. Under Gold's direction, the rest of the ensemble lends strong support, with standout performances by Finn Wittrock as Cassio, Matthew Maher Roderigo and Marsha Stephanie Blake as Emilia. While Rachel Broshahan's is an okay Desdemona, I would have liked to see more of Emilia's fire rub off on her.

To move beyond the "otherness" of how the Moor is perceived by the likes of Desdemona's father Brabantio (Glenn Fitzgerald) to "otherness" as it applies of Sam Gold's staging. He's certainly not the first to opt for a contemporary not very Venetian-like setting and minimal scenery. But his and scenic designer Andrew Lieberman's physical production is one of the more unique you're likely to have seen.

For starters, the entire theater has been redesigned as a pale, unfinished wood floor to ceiling environment, with three-sided bleacher seating. Since there are just four rows of benches on each side that puts every viewer intimately close to the stage. Under Gold's direction, the actors move naturally around as they speak so that there are no lesser views no matter where you sit. While the benches do have backs, they're narrow and padding on the seats is hardly plush. (You'd be wise to wear a sufficiently padded coat).

To say Gold and his designers have gone all out is to put it mildly. I can't recall the male characters alternately wearing shorts, t-shirts and baseball caps and battle fatigues. They can also be seen lifting weights and using electronic equipment.

As for the modern acoutrements, the furnishings consist mostly of of mattresses scattered all over the stage to create the atmosphere of an army barrack that could be anywhere. Integrated into this is the bed on which Othello and his bride make love and where, unlike another popular Shakespeare play, the all's decidedly not at all well end takes place.

The production certainly lives up to its classification as a tragedy with Iago's nasty mind games with his too easily manipulated boss ultimately leaving the stage strewn with bodies. And yet, while not exactly a barrel of laughs, Gold has seen to it that laughter ripples through the audience more often than one would expect. This push to ratchet up the humor was probably influenced by scholars who felt that Shakespeare used a traditional comic structure as the foundation stone on which to mount his tragic resolution in order to sharpen the contrast between light and darkness. I've seen this broadening of the humor beyond the hapless Roderigo's character before, but never quite as much for Craig's cool, malevolent Iago.

Kathy Fabian who's credited for "properties" has seen to it that that all-important handkerchief is as big as its contribution to the plot. Nothing small and dainty about this production's star prop. It's grown into a colorful shawl similar to the ones sold by so many vendors on the streets of Manhattan. She's even provided a trunk at the foot of one bed to serve as a classic Shakespearian trap door for the hapless Roderigo to pop out from.

A word about the combination of Jane Cox's mix of filmic and intense lighting. The first interchanges you hear are completely in the dark. Indeed at some twenty minutes, that first pitch black scene seems to go on forever. I'll admit I was more than a little relieved when the lights finally went on. It also took me a while to get used to the physical set-up and the sense of busyness resulting from the ensemble's frequently moving those mattresses around. That said, the blackouts to indicate scene changes worked fluidly and the way the sleeping Desdemona is briefly bathed in a green light is an effective omen of the death awaiting her and its cause.

Whatever I found less than ideal in the 90 minutes before the one intermission, turned completely compelling during the the play's big finale. Unlucky Desdemona. Unlucky Emilia. Unlucky Othello. Since the show is sold out, lucky you, if you nab a ticket.

For links to all our Othello and other plays by the bard, see our Shakespeare Quotation and Links page

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Shakespeare's play, directed by Sam Gold
Cast: David Oyelowo (Othello), Daniel Craig (Iago) Rachel Brosnahan (Desdemona), David Wilson Barnes (Duke/Ludovico), Marsha Stephanie Blake (Emilia), Blake DeLong (Soldier), Glenn Fitzgerald (Brabantio), Slate Holmgren (Montano), Anthony Michael Lopez (Soldier), Matthew Maher (Roderigo), Nikki Massoud (Bianca), Kyle Vincent Terry (Soldier), and Finn Wittrock (Cassio).
Scenic design by Andrew Lieberman
Costume design by David Zinn
Lighting design by Jane Cox
Sound design by Bray Poor
Fight direction by Thomas Schall
Voice direction by Andrew Wade
Dramaturgy by Michael Sexton
Stage Manager: Bess Marie Glorioso
Running Time: Three hours and ten minutes, including two intermissions
New York Theatre Workshop 79 E 4th St
From 11/22/16; opening 12/12/16; closing 1/18/17
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 12/11 press preview

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