WHERE New York Theatre Workshop, 79 E. Fourth St.
INFO Sold out, but cancellation line begins two hours before curtain; 212-460-5475; nytw.org
BOTTOM LINE Oyelowo and Craig in inspired, updated Shakespeare.
The biggest little event of the fall season is no star-driven gimmick. The “Othello” that stars David Oyelowo and Daniel Craig at the 199-seat New York Theatre Workshop is inspired, blazingly muscular and visceral. It is also as raw and real as the unfinished wood on the walls and the audience benches that bring us close to the rough power of director Sam Gold’s emotional knot of a production.
Instead of 16th century Cyprus and Venice, we are watching Shakespeare’s tragedy in an army barracks on any modern battlefield. Dirty mattresses and military gear litter the floor. We first hear Craig’s Iago in muted conversation in the absolute pitch of night, soon after Desdemona (a spontaneous, vivacious and lyrical Rachel Brosnahan) uses the light of her cellphone to sneak from her cot to Othello’s.
So, yes, this is high-concept Shakespeare, dressed down in Army surplus and gym clothes. But it is also high-intelligence and passion. Unlike many Othellos, who get upstaged by the more theatrical Iago, Oyelowo (“Selma,” “The Butler”) is just as charismatic. We see the romantic hero in him, but also the voice and presence of the conquering soldier, letting us glimpse the warrior temperament that, before long, will be duped by Iago into jealous catastrophe.
Nor is Craig’s Iago the usual silky manipulator. He is a guys’-guy, a bit of a thick-neck thug in a baseball cap and surfer shorts, a brilliant second banana who plots without raising suspicion. But in his soliloquies, often up in the aisles among the audience, his hearty voice hollows into rich, menacing beauty. James Bond was never thus.
Gold’s direction is a rowdy universe away from his sensitive touch in the Tony-winning “Fun Home,” but just as authentic. The cast is a genuine ensemble, thoroughly up to the celebrity challenge, including Finn Wittrock as the humiliated noble Cassio and Marsha Stephanie Blake as an exceptionally feisty Emilia, Iago’s wife.
The characters are brawlers whose guttural military chants are as macho-scary as their rendition of Drake’s “Hotline Bling” is poignant. Details are impeccable — Desdemona moisturizes before what becomes her deathbed. It’s best not to be overly literal about what city we are in when or whether these women are also soldiers.
The words are vivid and natural — British and American accents seem as defensible as soldiers in international warfare. And that reference to Aleppo at the end is not directorial tampering. Shakespeare actually said it.