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New York Theater Workshop

It’s too unmistakable a parallel: a play about an honest, fair-minded, honorable black man done in by a prevaricating, ambitious, deceitful white man. In the history of Shakespeare’s 400-year-old “Othello,” the politics of envy, jealousy and desire have always been translucent but never more so than as a capstone to this past annus horribilis. The powerful three-hour production at the New York Theater Workshop features David Oyelowo as the noble Othello and Daniel Craig as the villainous Iago. Despite the wattage, under Sam Gold’s muscular direction, this is not merely a star-struck evening, but one filled with classic pity and terror.

What Gold and his designers (Andrew Lieberman’s setting, Jane Cox’s lighting, David Zinn’s costumes and Bray Poor’s sound) have accomplished goes beyond merely putting a contemporary stamp on the tragedy. True to the text, they place the work on a continuum of universal elements that stretches from ancient days to today.

We are in an army barracks, worn mattresses strewn on the floor between tiers of spectators sitting on cushioned benches. It’s dark, pitch-black dark. A woman creeps from her bed to another’s, using the light from her cellphone to make her way. (Yes, the question fleets through the mind: is she a soldier too?)  These are the supposedly virginal Desdemona and the foreign Othello, “making the beast with two backs.”

Concentrate on the opening dialogue: Iago’s hushed conversation with the jilted Roderigo, whom he will use later in one of his dastardly schemes to destroy Othello. “Hell and night must bring this monstrous birth to the world’s light,” says Iago, and, indeed, light and dark vie with each other throughout.

Dark in deed is the white Iago, not a clearly monstrous figure but a subtle one, reasonable, quietly insidious yet playful, sure of his abilities, quick-triggered. Craig plays him as super-macho in dress and demeanor with touches of homoeroticism in his sibilant s’s. He’s a seductive sociopath. Nor is this a conventional Othello; Oyelowo, who played Martin Luther King, Jr. in the film “Selma,” is commanding but mellow and reticent, relying on equitable authority and a lack of drama until pushed over the edge. Of course, Othello’s emotions soon outstrip his intellect, and that is his downfall.

And then there’s Desdemona, wonderfully played by Rachel Brosnahan with a combination of naïveté and bravery, religion and pragmatism; she’s kind and loving but tough and assertive. Marsha Stephanie Blake is a fiercely loyal, very moving Emilia, Matthew Maher a foolish Roderigo and Finn Wittrock an unwary Cassio. The production builds and builds, catching characters and audience alike in its web until the breathless, passionate, inevitable final act.

Two questions: why use what a shawl in place of the telltale handkerchief that reveals Desdemona’s supposed infidelity? And why do soldiers not seize Iago at the end?

These are quibbles in a production that is boldly contemporary with its fake news, racism, resentment against “the other,” misogyny, lies and more lies. At the end, Othello tells of having killed “a malignant and a turbaned Turk,” a Muslim who “beat a Venetian,” a Christian. It happened, says the Moor, “once in Aleppo.”

--David A. Rosenberg
Dec. 26, 2016

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