Othello: The Fatal Affliction of the Green Eyed Monster
To be fair, Othello is not one of my favorite Shakespearian shows. I’ve seen it a few times and usually walk out feeling like I just endured something, rather than enjoyed. This is not the case by any means in Sam Gold’s exciting and testosterone fueled Othello currently selling out at the New York Theatre Workshop’s small main stage. It’s a hot ticket these days as many are wanting to see the matinee idol, Daniel Craig as Iago, David Oyelowo as Othello, and Finn Wittrock as Cassio. And I feel very fortunate to have been in attendance last night.
Walking into the theatre, you are once struck by the starkness and bright oppressiveness of the environment. It is very apparent from the get-go that this is going to be an in-your-face anxiety-producing experience that is meant to be slightly uncomfortable. We won’t be given beauty here, but rough, sharp, and harsh are the words that came to mind as the intense lights go out. Andrew Lieberman (scenic design) and Jane Cox (lighting design) have really out done themselves making a space feel so exposed and tense. The lighting is especially exciting to experience as all different modes of illumination are used, but don’t expect warm spots or subtle shading. Othello has always seemed smaller and more mean spirited in some ways then most of the tragedies of Shakespeare, and here these two designers, with the magnificent help of costume designer, David Zinn, have used that idea to the fullest.
The soldier barracks is the perfect space for this intense and aggressive Othello to be staged. Oyelowo (Selma, Queen of Katwe) in the title role is everything a strong and powerful General should be. He loves and trusts his men with all his heart and his life. He exudes strength and a muscular vitality, but he also carries with him the weight of being thought of as outsider because of his race, and unworthy of his wife in the eyes of her father. It carries with it an edge of rage and violence held underneath the solder’s garb. Luckily beside him, he has his faithful soldiers, and more importantly, his loyal lieutenant, Cassio (played with perfection by American Horror Story‘s Wittrock). Unfortunately for him, in his inner circle is Iago, perceived as loyal, but in reality, an unfaithful schemer. Craig’s Iago is the epitome of a devious, two-faced, backstabber. Chilling to observe his joy of deceiving, Craig lays out his revenge against Othello and Cassio with glee to us with a ferocious grin. It’s a wonderfully engaging performance, worthy of the hype and the movie star excitement surrounding this production.
The rest of the casting is fascinating and diverse, heaving with masculinity and intensity. The ensemble of male soldiers (David Wilson Barnes, Blake DeLong, Glenn Fitzgerald, Slate Holmgren, Anthony Michael Lopez, Matthew Maher, and Kyle Vincent Terry) lingering and guarding the space creates the exact level of distress needed for Othello. Then there is the wonderful casting of the ladies who bear the weight of this tragedy. Both carry a courageous and strong persona with them, unfazed by the manliness of the soldiers around them, relaxed and inspired in their presence. Rachel Brosnahan (“House of Cards”) is an athletic and graceful Desdemona, sexually alive and thoroughly entranced by her handsome husband, Othello. Her bewilderment with his quick decent into jealousy and rage seems authentic, and although from our modern vantage point, we might think she should have escaped at that first sign of abuse. The speed that the green eyed monster of jealousy overtakes Othello makes it plausible that Desdemona thinks she can talk him back down, in time. Her plea at one crucial point for Othello to spare that night, and wait until the morning carries another layer of meaning viewed with a modern eye. Maybe in the morning she could escape. Marsha Stephanie Blake (“Orange is the New Black”) as Emilia,
Iago’s feisty wife, portrays a woman equally strong and aggressive, matching Craig’s Iago moment to moment. The only strained point for me that made me step back a bit, is Emilia’s lack of action on Desdemona’s behalf. Emilia is written to be Desdemona’s maidservant, and in that historical power dynamic, it is more credible to understand her actions and non-action. In Gold’s modern version, Emilia seems to be an equal to Desdemona, and a close intimate friend, so without the threat of dismissal or punishment, her inaction and obliviousness are harder to comprehend. It seems impossible to believe that she doesn’t comprehend how her earlier actions might have contaminated Othello’s mind and soul. Yet she does does nothing, as she watches his jealousy burn.
But this is the nature of Shakespeare when these characters are taken out of the context and time frames they were first imagined. Sometimes with the female roles and the different dynamics they live in now, it is with them that the awkwardness resides. And this is also the joy of Shakespeare. It is truly amazing that his work can regularly be lifting from its historical context and placed in such diverse and imaginative times and places. It is extraordinary in its pliability. We, the audience, have learned to accept the inconsistencies with the setting and his words, gladly, in exchange to seeing a play in a new and unique light. Embracing the emotion and drive, while dismissing the parts that doesn’t add up with the time and place. Banishing them from our logical minds, in order to honor the stylistic interpretation. In Gold’s creation, this Othello powers through, as if on a military charge against the enemy. It’s energy is exhilarating. The power lies in the snippets of humanity, that weaves its way through. The love and trust of these men sharing the same army barracks is often spoke of and even as we smirk because that faith is not wisely placed, the power of it stays in the air. There is honest care and devotion between Desdemona and Cassio, and each of theirs to Othello, even as he rages. The beauty of the guitar being played throughout as the soundtrack to the kinder moments of devotion (incredible original music composed by Bray Poor and DeLong, who plays the guitar strumming soldier). It’s the perfect counterpoint to the betrayal, suspicion, and manipulation that is being orchestrated around these souls. The green eyed monster is a hungry cruel fiend, eating Othello and all those around him, no matter how strong the man is. It is an affliction that rots from the inside out. Harsh and mean.