“Othello” receives a sweeping makeover - in terms of setting, characterizations and racial overtones — in an intriguing and intimate Off-Broadway production at New York Theatre Workshop, which stars David Oyelowo (“Selma”) and Daniel Craig (i.e. James Bond) as Othello and Iago respectively.
Shakespeare’s masterful tragedy is taking on extended relevance in the current political environment, in which basic truths and scientific evidence are being questioned and derided and “fake news” is taking over social media.
Is Iago tricking Othello into believing that Desdemona has been unfaithful (leading to her violent murder) all that different from the false conspiracy theory that led to a display of gunfire at a pizza restaurant in Washington, D.C., last week?
As directed by Sam Gold (“Fun Home”), this “Othello” turns the entire performance space into a confined army barracks. Soldiers carry machine guns and rest on bare mattresses. Lighting is often limited to flashlights.
Gold deemphasizes Othello’s outsider identity as a Moor by incorporating other black actors into the cast, including Marsha Stephanie Blake as Iago’s wife Emilia.
Craig takes a surprisingly casual and quiet approach to Iago, eschewing the showiness and signs of villainy that are associated with the role. Often standing still in the background, and appearing older than the rest of the cast, who would suspect this Iago of mischief? Likewise, Rachel Brosnahan avoids looking traditionally feminine as Desdemona.
Oyelowo, initially sharp and well-composed, eventually turns wounded and emotional as Othello. Matthew Maher (“The Flick”) makes an unexpectedly strong impression in the minor role of Desdemona’s pitiful suitor Roderigo.
Some of Gold’s choices are questionable, but it’s well-executed overall. However, at a running time of three hours and 10 minutes, would it have been so terrible to abridge the text by a half hour or so, especially since the audience is made to sit upon arena-style wooden benches?