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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - December 18, 2016

Photo by Chad Batka
You don't need to have served in the military to know that the old axiom is true. With nearly every production he directs, Sam Gold proves that war is, indeed, hell, though the struggles he's depicted have traditionally been of the internal variety. To his superb efforts showing (among many others) a family fighting its own secrets (Fun Home), budding artists tilting against their emerging inspiration (Circle Mirror Transformation), and America fighting against itself (The Flick), Gold may safely add the largely excellent (and totally sold-out) production of Othello that is playing at New York Theatre Workshop through January 18. Although the battle here is not the one you might be expecting if you're familiar with William Shakespeare's acerbic tragedy.

For race is not the primary motivator in this particular black-versus-white story. The "moor of Venice" referred to in the work's common subtitle is still present, and played by a black actor (David Oyelowo, best known for his films, including Selma), and his deceptive enemy Iago is, as so often the case, played by a white actor (Daniel Craig). But if Iago, whose motivations so frequently extend no more than skin deep, is, as here, married to an Emilia played by a black actress (Marsha Stephanie Blake), is it not safe to assume that his rage stems, at least in part, from a different source? (The script has been trimmed, seriously but smartly, to reinforce and focus your mind on this idea.)

As is slowly but surely revealed over the three-hour-and-10-minute running time, Iago is driven to the acts of covert rage that lead him to turn Othello against not just his wife, Desdemona (Rachel Brosnahan), and his trusted underling, Michael Cassio (Finn Wittrock), by a stir craziness you'll find yourself falling victim to as well. Gold has rendered all the action within the barracks room of a bunker that, as concocted by set designer Andrew Lieberman, is a claustrophobic plywood box. The ceiling, walls, floors, and the seats on which you're perched are found space where privacy, of both the physical and emotional kind, is in perilously short supply. Cram nearly a dozen hot-bloods into this environment and relegate them air mattresses occupying a few square inches of floor, and it's utterly believable that anything truly could happen.

Anything does, and the forced closeness of these confines is blamed for everything from Iago's deceit to Othello and Desdemona's hot-and-heavy romance. Yet this proves neither shallow nor limiting, as Gold and his actors keep redrawing the internal and the external boundaries to show the ever-evolving impact on the characters' psyches. Banter and hazing that under other circumstances might be purely playful takes on a devilish and dangerous mien. And it does not come as a shock that the Othello who starts as the vision of a proper soldier, with stiff spine and sharp shoulders, soon devolves into a frothing, hunched-over animal violently defending what little of his personal turf remains. This cramped, airless place is all that separates these men and women from the untold horrors about to be inflicted by the aggressors outside. Of all the things it could mean, at some point it simply has to mean too much.

Despite this firm concept, however, which is extended by the additional fine design work of David Zinn (costumes), Jane Cox (lights), and Bray Poor (sound), you don't care less about the individual players in the saga. Othello and Desdemona truly are in love, and when Iago poisons their union, he corrupts something significant and pure. Ditto the relationship between Othello and Cassio, which crumbles in slow but shattering motion over a long period of time. And the ways Iago corrupts two innocents, Roderigo and Cassio's wife Bianca (Matthew Maher and Nikki Massoud, both terrific), into becoming sacrifices for his lies, are irritating in their completeness. Anyone, we're starkly informed, can go from being a friend to an enemy when the right turns the wrong way. But in situations like this, it's far from clear that there can ever really be a "right" way.

So compelling are the issues raised, and so effectively are they addressed, that the tiny missteps matter more than they ought to. A guitar-wielding soldier (Blake DeLong), who provides a practically continuous soundtrack to the unfolding events, is a grenade to the production's otherwise unflinching commitment to realism: It's never exactly obvious why he's earned an omnipresence no one else has. And as good as the staging is, it loses credibility in the final quarter, when Iago's schemes are being uncovered; the final fates of Roderigo and Emilia are so unconvincingly handled, you can't help but wonder whether, after nearly three hours of brilliant dramatic reinvention, Gold just plain ran out of ideas for disposing of the detritus.

That it hardly matters is a testament to how much this company gets right in every other way. Oyelowo is remarkable in crafting Othello's stop-motion disintegration, and his attempts to maintain his sanity against increasingly explosive adversity are gripping in their intensity; I'm not sure I've ever seen an Othello better pinpoint the precise second at which the dam bursts and he realizes that there's no longer a return to his previous self. Craig's casual callousness, though, is no less magnetic, and his Iago is a master of airtight sequestration of his feelings, so much so that, were it not for his soliloquies explaining his state of mind, you'd be hard pressed to know for certain what side he's actually on. Brosnahan makes Desdemona a vision of a modern woman who's secure inside and out; she's a picture of honesty and reliability without being in any way disconnected or virginal. If Wittrock pushes Cassio's cluelessness a shade too far, he's outstanding, too, as the bloodiest, most unfortunate casualty we meet.

No one gets off scot-free, of course, and making us see how everyone, including the survivors, is destroyed by the treatment they receive in this madness-inducing sepulchre may just be Gold's most successful flourish. Even if you escape the battlefield unscathed, there are always new conflicts to wage and win, and those may be even more dehumanizing than the ones you leave behind. But so powerful is the humanity on display here that even though Gold doesn't pretend to have the answers, you'll remain consumed by the questions he asks long after you leave the theater. And you'll be thankful every moment that that's an option you have, since it's not one available to the tortured, torturing souls in this wrenching, engrossing Othello.

Through January 18, 2017
New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street between Bowery and 2nd Avenue
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