All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely movie stars in New York Theatre Workshop’s Othello — a bloody, kinetic update of Shakespeare’s classic tragedy steered by the towering charisma of its two marquee leads. As, respectively, the titular general and his slippery ensign Iago, David Oyelowo (Selma, The Butler) and Daniel Craig (Spectre, Skyfall, countless wrecked tuxedos) disappear utterly into their roles, as they should; both are classically trained thespians whose careers originated on stage. But it’s also hard to deny the almost illicit thrill of watching our onscreen avatars of Martin Luther King Jr. and James Bond face off for three-plus hours in an East Village theater so small and bare it feels like a part-time garage. (If one incongruously filled with its own rank of New York celebrities on this preview evening, including Julianna Margulies, Lucy Liu, and a hunted-looking David Schwimmer.)
The Workshop’s stated mission is to “provoke, produce, and cultivate the work of artists whose visions inspire and challenge all of us,” and director Sam Gold (a Tony winner for Fun Home), duly tweaks the traditional staging of a play that has now spent nearly half a millennium in the public domain. His Othello opens in midnight darkness on stark military barracks, its plywood floors littered with grubby mattresses, crumpled bags of Fritos, and cast-off magazines. Bored, sleepy soldiers doze and strum guitars as Iago tells the guileless Roderigo (Matthew Maher) of Othello’s secret marriage to Desdemona (Rachel Brosnahan) and his plan is to use their controversial union to sabotage and ultimately destroy his supposed friend and mentor. Desdemona’s furious father (Glenn Fitzgerald) is clearly ready to finish the job more directly, but the love-drunk couple, oblivious to the ugly plottings their marriage has set in motion, is hardly put on guard: He’s too smitten, and she too sweet, to recognize the dangers ahead — even as Iago has already drafted the unwitting Cassio (The Big Short’s Finn Wittrock) to undermine Othello’s faith in his new bride’s fidelity.
If you haven’t kept your high school CliffsNotes, it helps to know these plot points in part because the Elizabethan language is so undeniably dense; even though Gold has moved the story to a strenuously contemporary world of athleisure wear, Macbook Airs, and Drake dance parties — a first-act foray into “Hotline Bling” is clearly a stunt, but still a fun one — the text itself remains largely unaltered from Shakespeare’s day. The director also doesn’t seem particularly interested in underlining or recontextualizing the centuries-old issues of race and prejudice the plot turns on; set against unchanged dialogue, his color-blind casting of several supporting roles feels distinctly post-Hamilton. (Fans craving even more poetic license can turn to the drastically abridged, Desdemona-free hip-hop musical Othello: The Remix, running concurrently uptown at the Westside Theater.)
With the Bard’s tricky verse mostly intact, it’s a testament to the cast’s efforts and abilities that its original intentions are telegraphed so well through movement, inflection, and emotion. Craig, in cargo shorts and a straining cotton t-shirt, breaks the fourth wall repeatedly to cajole and confide in the audience; his Iago is a charming charlatan and a clever raconteur, with a Chekovian gun conspicuously holstered at his hip. Brosnahan’s spirited Desdemona, in her black leggings and blond cornrows, also smartly straddles both eras — even if the actress, an Evan Rachel Wood doppelganger probably best known for her Emmy-nominated role on House of Cards, feels a little milky to be the muse of all this murderous passion. (And also the target of some of the script’s most creative slander: terms of endearment run all the way from “lewd minx” to “impudent strumpet” and “cunning whore of Venice.”) But for all the rich performances and creative risk-taking onstage, it’s Oyelow’s Othello who ultimately holds the anguished heart and soul of the play in his hands. By turns tender and indomitable, enslaved by “the green-eyed monster which doth mock” and deranged by grief, he imbues every line and gesture with timeless, luminous humanity. A–