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Theatre in Review: Othello (New York Theatre Workshop)

David Oyelowo, Daniel Craig. Photo: Chad Batka.

Any good production of Othello will simmer with conflict, but one hardly expects the main clash to unfold between the director and his stars. This is nothing against David Oyelowo and Daniel Craig, who are doing incisive, even brilliant, work as Othello and Iago; the problem is the director, Sam Gold, who seemingly has set out to undermine their efforts in ways that often beggar belief. In four decades of theatregoing, I can't recall another production in which the director's vision was so thoroughly at odds with the performances of his leading actors.

But do the stars ever deliver! Oyelowo's Othello is the consummate military professional, a natural leader who impresses with his cool competence and control over his men. He stands tall, looks straight ahead, and has no time for nonsense; he runs the tightest of ships. I've seen Othellos who are highly conscious of standing out in an all-white society, and some who seemingly enjoy the provocation inherent in having stolen Desdemona away from her father, Brabantio. Oyelowo's Moor has no outsized ego; he knows his worth and has nothing to prove -- and, anyway, he has a war to conduct. He reserves all his tenderness for Desdemona, with whom he becomes a very different person, treating her with the dignity that is hers as the wife of a commander. At the same time, his take-charge persona is surprisingly brittle; when he gives an order to Cassio, who tries to pass the responsibility on to Iago, the tiniest of rifts opens between the two men. Othello isn't accustomed to being contradicted, and the moment of tension that ensues makes certain that Cassio will instantly retract his comment. From this moment on, one feels that Othello never fully trusts Cassio; the groundwork is being laid for the deadly betrayals to come.

This quick flash of suspicion on Othello's part goes a long way toward explaining how easily Iago can arouse the Moor's jealousy, manipulating him into a frenzy that will be dispelled only by violence. Oyelowo charts his character's descent into homicidal madness with almost clinical accuracy, climaxing in a blood-chilling moment when he howls -- a mix of terror and fury -- at the chaos that has descended on his soul; at one point, desperate to have his suspicions allayed, he grabs Iago in a headlock so fierce that one half-believes that this time Shakespeare's tragedy will end in the villain's death; equally stunning is the murder of Desdemona, which here comes across as a quasi-rape. By any standard, this is an Othello to treasure -- original in conception and packed with savage emotions.

Craig's Iago is as slippery as a rattlesnake and just as dangerous. Notice how, when speaking to someone, he keeps his eyes fixed on that person, carefully evaluating the effects of his lies. His manner is casual, affable, easygoing in the extreme; he is everyone's friend and only wants to help them all. He offers a friendly arm and a thoughtful piece of advice -- and he always pauses, ever so slightly, before slipping in a verbal shiv guaranteed to draw psychological blood. There's an absolutely lethal look on his face when Emilia, his wife, provocatively kisses Cassio, and when Cassio pulls rank on him ("Ay, but, by your leave, not before me; the/lieutenant is to be saved before the ancient") his face is clouded with envy and rage. His handling of Othello in the later scenes is a chillingly precise exercise in mental manipulation. Both actors handle Shakespeare's verse superbly, but Craig has the knack of making it seem like everyday speech, each new thought freshly arrived at. And, turning to us and detailing his plans for revenge, he makes all of us complicit in his evil. Even if you have seen Othello many times, Oyelowo and Craig make the play seems surprisingly new.

That is, if you can see them. The conceit of Gold's production is that we are in some kind of thrown-up army base, most likely in Afghanistan or Iraq. Andrew Lieberman's set covers the interior of New York Theatre Workshop in cheap, unpainted pine, with the audience seated on bleachers on two sides. The stage floor is lined with mattresses and other little items belonging to Othello's men; books, lamps, etc. This is one of those directorial concepts that aims to update the play but ends up being as confusing as all get-out. Unlike a unit set, which can easily stand in for many locations, the specificity of this design fights the text. Even when the action moves from Venice to Cyprus, the set remains the same. Desdemona is discovered in bed with Othello; when the action shifts to Brabantio's house, he's on the mattress at the other end of the room. Even in the most intimate of scenes, for example, when Iago is winding up Othello with hints of Desdemona's supposed infidelity, there are soldiers lying around, one of them usually strumming a guitar. The soldiers, who generally ignore the scenes unfolding a few inches away, wrestle, pump iron, and burst into an impromptu rendition of the Drake hit "Hotline Bling." There's even a break dance; who even knew anyone even did that anymore?

Everywhere you look, there are fresh oddities. Iago and Rodrigo plot to undo Cassio, who is standing about four feet away from them, apparently unable to hear them. At the end of the play, when Iago is apprehended and Othello's body is being carried away, nobody feels the need to attend to Cassio, who is lying on the ground with a massive flesh wound. He is left onstage alone with Iago -- who, I guess, is supposed to turn himself in. It doesn't help that so much of the supporting cast -- Rachel Brosnahan's flat, uninflected Desdemona; Matthew Maher's Rodrigo, played entirely for laughs; and Glenn Fitzgerald's stilted Brabantio -- is lackluster. (Better contributions are made by Finn Wittrock as the heedless Cassio; Marsha Stephanie Blake as the tough, mordant Emilia; and David Wilson Barnes as both the Duke of Venice and Lodovico.)

There's a more fundamental problem: The first several minutes are staged in total darkness -- ostensibly, I guess, because Othello has slipped Desdemona into his bed following their elopement -- a gambit that kicks off the action on an irritating note. Later, the visibility level scarcely improves. At different times the stage is lit with LED bars, a set of fluorescent tubes, and what looks like banks of industrial units aimed to bounce off the ceiling. In all but a handful of scenes, the effect is a series of murky, miasmic washes that leave the actors' faces shrouded in semi-darkness. The climax is lit entirely by actors wearing headlamps, lying on the stage floor, an attention-diverting device that makes one wonder why so many men are hanging out in Desdemona's bedroom. I assume that the talented lighting designer, Jane Cox, was largely following orders -- at least, I hope so.

There are occasional moments when the production threatens to snap into focus. Also, David Zinn's military costumes are certainly acceptable in this context -- although it's disconcerting to see Desdemona in what looks like Lululemon sweat pants -- and Bray Poor's sound is also okay. But this is a classic case of directorial overreach that constantly draws one's attention away from the drama at center stage and toward the dozens of fussy little touches that do nothing to reveal the text.

There are rumors that this production may move to Broadway; I pray that, before that happens, someone manages to clear away the clutter. -- David Barbour

(23 December 2016)

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