Theater Review: A Pair of Reinvented Othellos

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David Oyelowo as Othello, at NYTW. Photo: Joan Marcus

As befits its all-or-nothing love story, Othello is Shakespeare’s most intense play, in part because it eschews his usual ADHD dramaturgy. The tragedy of the Moorish general who becomes a hero in his adopted land, who marries the pearl of its gentry, Desdemona, and is then gulled by his ensign, Iago, into murdering her in a jealous rage, is barely interrupted by the typical sideshows. Claustrophobic and headlong, it confines itself to just two settings: imperial Venice for the first act and occupied Cyprus thereafter. It has no subplots, no Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, no gravediggers or porters or walk-on punsters, and only a couple of clown scenes, which are tied quite closely to the story. Still, the clowns have been cut in the ripping good modern-dress production that opened at New York Theatre Workshop tonight, in a production starring David Oyelowo and Daniel Craig under Sam Gold’s masterly direction. Cut, too, are many eddies of metaphor and reiterations of intent that, however beautiful and apropos, defuse the dread and slacken the thrust of the action. In all, about one-fifth of the play has been excised, very judiciously; what remains, though still three hours long, is even more intense than usual, moving like a bullet from gun to skin.

And yes, there are guns: This Othello is set, more theatrically than literally, among American soldiers of the present. Andrew Lieberman’s scenic design renders the protean NYTW space as a single, sealed plywood enclosure, with hard tiered bleachers for the audience on three sides of the actors: part barracks, part coffin, part jury and witness box. The play begins with the cast — co-ed and racially diverse — settling on dirty mattresses on the floor, with magazines and paperback novels and cell phones at hand. (Those cell phones, and other devices, will often provide the only illumination in Jane Cox’s extraordinary found-lighting scheme.) Later scenes depict the soldiers working out at the bench press, or pounding shots from glasses filled with LED ice cubes. Songs indicated by Shakespeare are replaced here by exactly what you might expect contemporary soldiers to sing: Drake’s “Hotline Bling,” Willie Nelson’s “I Gotta Get Drunk.” In this way Gold emphasizes not only the literal military setting but also the closed mind-set, strict hierarchy, and general aura of repression from which a tragedy like Othello’s can erupt. This is a world, all too familiar just now, in which real information is scarce and fake news is nearly undisprovable. “Honesty’s a fool,” sneers Iago.  

What Gold does not emphasize is the racial story that has been the chief source of contention about Othello since it was first performed around 1604. Many of Gold’s cuts remove references to the general’s blackness, whether of skin or, supposedly, of heart. There are certainly many such references left, enough for us to understand the shock of Desdemona’s choice to elope with him, and the provisional regard in which he is held by the military Establishment. Yet the contemporary setting and the multiracial casting of the soldiers, who become named players in the drama as needed, crosscut that awareness. Marsha Stephanie Blake, incisive as Iago’s wife, Emilia, is black. Does this defuse the idea of a racist motive for Iago’s scheme to bring Othello down? Or does it, perhaps, support and provide cover for that motive? (It’s not a happy marriage, and Iago thinks it possible that Othello has cuckolded him.) When characters played by other black actors do not flinch to hear Othello referred to as “sooty” or as a “Barbary horse,” do we understand that Othello’s presumption upon the Venetian elite, and upon Iago, has not been a matter of color but of class? Is he an outsider because he’s an immigrant? Because he’s great? Or is he merely (cue the dog whistle) uppity?

I think Gold’s idea is not to eradicate the racial question but to moderate and complicate it by withholding an obvious answer. In this he is beautifully served by the entire cast, but especially by his stars, who stay fully within the production’s restrictive parameters — no grandstanding, no gratuitous seduction — even when addressing the audience directly. Oyelowo, a regular suspect at the Royal Shakespeare Company before his television and film success of recent years, easily wraps his mouth around Othello’s triple-crème verse yet makes a fully believable spectacle of the irrationality that nibbles away at all that beauty. He’s haunting in his nearly willful self-destruction. And Craig, in his best New York stage outing to date, makes something disturbingly familiar out of his casually amoral Iago. With his slight Cockney accent and I’m-just-saying demeanor — he delivers some of the famous soliloquies with a green trucker cap dangling from his hand — he might be a great guy or a serial killer or anything in between.

That’s the story this Othello most wants to tell: How a man can cause so much tragedy with no clearer motive than that the opportunity presented itself. Gold, following Shakespeare, assumes we are familiar with this type even if we do not understand him. (When finally caught and questioned, Iago famously refuses to explain himself: “Demand me nothing. What you know, you know.”) Still, Othello gives us a useful clue in Iago’s narcissism. In one of the lines cut from this production — probably because Craig is 48, not 28 — Iago reflects: “I have looked upon the world for four times seven years; and since I could distinguish betwixt a benefit and an injury, I never found man that knew how to love himself.” Even lacking that line, this production brings us closer to the cold heart of sociopathy than anything outside of the nightly news. It is the nightly news.

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From Othello: The Remix, at the Westside. Photo: Carol Rosegg

New York has two contemporized versions of Othello running right now, but only one features men playing women, Desdemona played by a pillow, and an easy-to-digest hip-hop score performed to the beats of an onstage DJ. That one is Othello: The Remix, which opened last month at the Westside. The work of Chicago-based brothers Gregory and Jeffrey Qayium, who go by GQ and JQ, this Othello follows their hit Off Broadway Bomb-itty of Errors in 1999 and Funk It Up About Nothin’ in 2008. You might think that the technique applied to those Shakespearian comedies — full of clever updates and snarky rhymes — would underserve a great tragedy, but somehow it doesn’t; though full of laughs, this Othello finds sufficient resonance in its new setting to merit the effort. The translation is apt enough: Othello (Postell Pringle) is the hip-hop mogul behind First Folio records; Iago (GQ) is a performer who has been passed over in favor of pretty-boy “candy rapper” Cassio (Jackson Doran); and Desdemona (the pillow) is a baby Adele whom Othello “loves too well.” Of course, this treatment can’t achieve the full pathos of the original verse (though “You Made Your Bed Now Sleep in It” is an awfully good number for the fateful strangling scene); still, it is never less than inventive and even instructive in finding cognates for Shakespeare’s poetry. His heroic metaphors drawn from now-obscure knowledge seem reinvigorated when translated into terms as familiar to us as heraldry and the hunt were to Elizabethans. Roderigo is a Dungeons & Dragons nerd; the handkerchief becomes the blingiest necklace in the business.

Othello is at the New York Theatre Workshop through January 18. 
Othello: The Remix is at the Westside Theatre. 

*This article appears in the December 26, 2016, issue of New York Magazine.

Theater Review: A Pair of Othellos