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David and Oyelowo and Daniel and Craig in the New York Theater Workshop production of Shakespeare’s “Othello.” | CHAD BATKA
David Oyelowo and Daniel Craig in the New York Theater Workshop production of Shakespeare’s “Othello.” | CHAD BATKA

The undercurrents of passion, menace, and virtually unrelieved tension that pulse through Sam Gold’s masterful staging of “Othello,” now at New York Theatre Workshop, make this one of the most exciting productions of this play I have seen –– and I’ve seen 11 over several decades.

Set in a contemporary military encampment, the theater has been turned into a rough-hewn plywood arena with the audience sitting on surprisingly comfortable bleachers looking down on the play from three sides. This design by Andrew Lieberman adds levels of palpable claustrophobia to the brewing tragedy as the play unfolds.

Lighting designer Jane Cox has eschewed traditional theatrical techniques and relied on flashlights, LED panels, overhead fluorescents, and portable camping lights to create hard-edged, stark, and often-unflattering effects. The innovation and power of this stripped-down design alone would be reason enough to celebrate the creativity of this production.

NYTW deliver a masterpiece “Othello

Fortunately, though, there is so much more. Director Gold starts by trusting the script; the careful reading of the play, respectful of Shakespeare’s balancing of poetry and brutality, is extraordinary. There isn’t a moment that feels unexplored or ill-defined. The clarity and specificity of each of the characters propel the story with edge-of-the-seat urgency.

The tragedy unfolds as Iago, passed over for a promotion by Othello, seeks revenge upon the Moor by convincing him that his wife, Desdemona, has been unfaithful to him with Othello’s chosen lieutenant, Cassio. Iago knows how to play each person in his game perfectly to achieve his selfish ends, only to betray them as he moves to his next objective. (Any similarities to a 2016 president-elect in a play written in 1603 are coincidental but speak to the consistency throughout time of the powerful human lust to accumulate power.)

With each action Iago takes, there is a looming sense of inevitability and a growing sense of horror as the audience sees what the characters do not. To see Shakespeare’s intent so beautifully realized is thrilling. There are moments in this production that are intensely visceral, and at the performance I saw shocked gasps among the audience were common.

Gold has an amazing cast to work with, too. Both Daniel Craig as Iago and David Oyelowo as Othello are movie stars who prove themselves to be exceptional classical actors. Oyelowo’s nuanced portrayal of a man besotted with his wife to the point of distraction and then roused to destruction when his jealousy is played upon strikes a perfect balance. Oyelowo plays the Moor with an African accent, which enhances the exoticism Shakespeare wrote into the part and adds scope and theatricality to both Othello’s rage and his collapse when he realizes what he’s done.

Craig, known primarily as James Bond in films, oozes his way into the hearts and minds of those around him. Even dressed in a T-shirt and shorts, he manages a suave mien and irresistible charm in a portrayal of psychosis and amorality that is consistently chilling. As with his fellow cast members, Craig’s facility and precision with the language are remarkable.

The rest of Gold’s company is every bit the match for these two stars. Matthew Maher, a credulous nobleman who is the first of Iago’s emotional conquests, goes beyond a stock Shakespearean type to deliver a character whose selfishness and lack of morality are the dark side of Andrew Aguecheek from “Twelfth Night.” As Cassio, Finn Wittrock, a star in his own right, has a subtlety and openness that are compelling. He conveys Cassio’s characteristic goodness and honor –– making him the diametric opposite of Iago –– with directness and simplicity that fuel the dramatic tension between the characters.

Rachel Brosnahan as Desdemona manages to be fully believable in her time even while a completely contemporary woman who knows her mind as opposed to a girl swept up in romance. Her portrayal gives the role a freshness and scope not often seen. Marsha Stephanie Blake as Emilia, Iago’s wife and Desdemona’s companion and defender, is a sassy spitfire but with a depth of honor that drives her to expose Iago’s plot even at the cost of her own life. There were screams in the audience when Iago shoots her.

Those screams pretty much say it all. In the intimate setting –– with an audience likely numbering less than 300 –– the visceral punch of this story makes this “Othello” both immediate and gripping. It is a classic revenge tragedy from the early 17th century to be sure, but it’s also a cautionary tale for our time — both exciting and terrifying.

OTHELLO | New York Theater Workshop, 79 E. 4th St., btwn. Bowery & Second Ave. | Through Jan. 18: Tue.-Wed., Sun. at 7 p.m.; Thu.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sat at 2 p.m. | Regular $125 tickets sold out, but $25 lottery tickets daily at TodayTix app| Three hrs., 10 mins., with intermission

Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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