It is director Sam Gold's magic: humanize the great, the iconic, the tiptoed-around. This is not the impulse to high concept, to replay in order to create sociopolitical comment (bend genders, bend locales), but the idea that larger-than-life characters are not larger, but in fact, alive. Give this Tony-award winning (Fun Home) director a tiny theater, a couple of major actors, and shazam: the "classic" play is transformed from a revered object into a deeply understood, passionately felt story about people, not roles. He did it, for example, in a tiny living room at SoHo Rep with Uncle Vanya, and it's the gift he brought to the productions of Annie Baker's The Flick and John. He's done it again at New York Theatre Workshop with Shakespeare's Othello.
The small venue has been entirely rebuilt for the occasion. The smell of new lumber testifies to this; we sit on raised bleachers, maybe 200 people, looking down at the floor. And what a starry occasion it is: David Oyelowo (Selma) and Daniel Craig (007) return to their splendid theatrical roots and give us an Othello of great power.
For this play about a famous general, Othello, a black man who woos and marries Desdemona, the white daughter of Venice's Senator. Oyelowo creates a portrait of a man's man, besotted with his new wife. There are rivals for his wife's love, raising issues of racism and exoticism. Othello has promoted Cassio (young, cleancut Finn Wittrock) above Iago, a man of malice and ambition. Iago persuades Othello that Desdemona has been unfaithful to him, and this groundless accusation will set off a chain of dire events. That persuasion is the work of a sociopath, and Craig presents a conscienceless, blank face to the world.
The setting (Andrew Lieberman) is entirely military: unmade mattresses lined up on the floor; a casual barracks mess of machine guns and magazines and sneakers. The men wear fatigues and baseball caps, and lots of gorgeous muscles are on display (the ensemble might have been recruited from a gym), so it is startling to hear Renaissance English spoken, and yet, in a moment, we accept this as normal conversation. There are lively contemporary moments — some dirty dancing, wrestling, weight-lifting, singing.
Oddly, there is no feminine counterpoint to this rough world of men. Desdemona (Rachel Brosnahan) wears a wrinkled shirt, leggings, uncombed hair, and no makeup, hardly looking the elegant, cloistered Venetian. Emilia (Marsha Stephanie Blake) dresses like a soldier. The role of Bianca (Nikki Massoud) has been radically shortened, and she is shrouded in headscarves. All this seemed to me to distort the play's world, considering how many lovelorn men there are, especially Rodrigo (Matthew Maher), cruelly used by Iago — and by both Gold and Shakespeare — as comic relief. There should be something about the three women that speaks both beauty and sexuality, and stands in contrast to dangerous military adventures — the very stories that won Desdemona. The women's voices, especially in the quiet confidential conversations between Desdemona and Emilia, don't project well, and the production's energy seems to sag.
If Shakespeare made his script murky by assigning so many possible motives to Iago's lethal manipulations (envy, love, ambition, lust, resentment, and the I'm-the-smartest-guy-in-the-room arrogance), the production is murky as well; no significant glances or snarling asides provide a solution to the ambiguity Shakespeare offers. Some people are just monsters, and it is most significant that in reply to Othello's need for an answer, the villain replies, "Demand me nothing: what you know, you know:/ From this time forth I never will speak word." And he doesn't.
But at the very end, when all the other men have left the stage, Iago looks down at his handiwork: Othello and Desdemona dead, and beside their bed, on the floor, his wife Emilia dead, Bianca dead, Rodrigo, dragged in from the alley, dead. No emotion crosses Craig's face. He has demonstrated what he promised at the start: "For when my outward action doth demonstrate/The native act and figure of my heart/…I am not what I am." It is a brilliant moment: the unintelligibility of pure evil, without psychologizing, without explaining. Last man standing. Chaos has, indeed, come again.
Othello. New York Theatre Workshop, 79 E. 4th St.. Through Jan.18, 2017.