In the plays of William Shakespeare, the greatest humiliation a man can face is being made a cuckold—a situation the playwright used time and again for both comic and tragic purposes. Nowhere is this as clear as in “Othello,” brilliantly brought to life by director Sam Gold and actors Daniel Craig and David Oyelowo at the New York Theatre Workshop.
The armed forces of Venice are a power to be reckoned with thanks to their general, Othello (Oyelowo). While respected by the troops and trusted by the country’s ruler (David Wilson Barnes), Othello has never truly felt the comfort of belonging. As a Moor, Othello is seen by some to be beneath the other citizens of Venice.
Othello’s most recent sting came from Brabantio (Glenn Fitzgerald), a Venetian senator whose daughter Desdemona (Rachel Brosnahan) has secretly wed Othello. Brabantio cuts all ties to Desdemona when she chooses to stand by her husband rather than end the marriage.
Even as Othello and Desdemona rejoice in being man and wife, Iago (Daniel Craig), a trusted ensign in Othello’s company, has made it his mission to destroy the couple’s happiness.
Iago secretly harbors a deep hatred for his commander. Some of this anger stems from being passed over for promotion in favor of Cassio (Finn Wittrock), an “arithmetician” who has never before had a battlefield command. There’s also the possibility that Iago has his own designs on Desdemona, or that he simply hates Othello for who he is.
Using the advantage of having Othello’s ear, Iago embarks on a campaign of whispers and insinuation in an attempt to plant the seed of suspicion: Perhaps Desdemona is not the faithful spouse her husband thinks her to be.
Despite Othello’s initial denials of this possibility, it’s not long before Iago’s comments cause doubt to arise, and doubt soon gives way to full-blown rage.
Iago is helped in his efforts by the somewhat naive Roderigo (Matthew Maher), who is so besotted with Desdemona himself that he does not see how he is being used by Iago. Also unwittingly aiding Iago is his wife, Emilia (Marsha Stephanie Blake), an attendant to Desdemona with unfettered access to her lady’s chambers, which Iago uses to his advantage.
It is with more than a bit of irony that the show illustrates how strongly purity is prized in women while it doesn’t seem to mean much when it comes to men. This contradiction is made clear by Cassio’s relationship with the prostitute Bianca (Nikki Massoud). She’s fallen in love with Cassio and would marry him if he asked, but he never seems to take the matter as seriously as she does.
Bianca’s precarious standing becomes even more evident when she is disbelieved by authorities in regards to what she knows about Iago’s plotting and is condemned out of hand.
This gender bias is nicely juxtaposed with Gold’s modern take on the story. Set in what is intended to be military-style barracks, and in almost complete darkness for the first 20 minutes, the show uses devices such as computers and cell phones as props.
While disconcerting at the beginning, these props illustrate the power of the text and the chief reason for why Shakespeare’s works have survived over the centuries: They can be adapted to almost any situation.
Oyelowo is excellent as the title character, who takes Othello from a man of unbridled joy and confidence to one undone by his own deep-rooted insecurities. The character battles not only the thought that he has been made a fool of, but also of finding himself becoming a savage animal, the very thing that those in some quarters have always thought him to be.
Craig is perfect as the quietly malevolent Iago, using every asset available, including his own wife, as pawns in his scheme and with absolutely no regard for his actions.
Brosnahan does well as Desdemona, particularly when showing her bewilderment at her husband’s sudden change in attitude.
Fitzgerald does a short but very effective turn as the unforgiving Brabantio.
The production is also helped by the strong fight direction by Thomas Schall.
Offering a telling moral lesson about the dangers of believing too quickly what we secretly fear to be true, “Othello” remains one of the more timely works of Shakespearean canon, with this particular production making its points powerfully, indeed.
Also in the cast are Blake DeLong, Slate Holmgren, Anthony Michael Lopez, and Kyle Vincent Terry.
New York Theatre Workshop
79 E. Fourth St.
Tickets: 212-460-5475 or NYTW.org
Running Time: 3 hours, 10 minutes (one intermission)
Closes: Jan. 18
Judd Hollander is a reviewer for Stagebuzz.com and a member of the Drama Desk and the Outer Critics Circle.