Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Thoughts on New York Theater Workshop's Othello

Spurred on by Shaun Clark’s excellent short NECK AND NECK which condensed Shakespeare Othello down to around 6 minutes I decided to try and see Daniel Craig and David Oyelowo in Othello at New York Theater Workshop. The decision was made partly to see how the play compared to the short, but also because I wanted to see what the two stars did with their roles.

What the star did with their roles was tear down the house. As good as they are in film roles both are better stage actors, especially where they have material that allows them to really emote and take charge. We need to give them more roles where they can physically attack one another and roll around on the floor. That is not a joke, the last act battle between the two men is truly gripping and makes me hope that in the future the two men can play enemies on the big screen

The setting for the play is a military barracks. Its all ply wood and hardware from Home Depot. The set is dressed with stuff from the army navy store. There is a real sense that you are there in the thick of things.The audience is on three sides of the stage in stadium seating. Mattresses and other barracks material are on the floor. All the lighting is natural, Lamps on stage, on the barracks seiling, or flash lights & head lamps. Some scenes take place in near blackness (an effect that will be lost should the play transfer to any sort of larger theater-and forget this working in a traditional one). We are close and in their space, allowing  Oyelowo and Craig  to really talk to the audience. When they address the audience, they are talking to each one of us, they are making us all co-conspirators.

While this is probably as a good a production as we are likely to ever see there are some bits that don’t quite work as well as others. Some of the early dialog gets lost in large space. Matthew Maher as Rodrigo, comes off as too much a fool with the result that we feel nothing when he meets a bad end. The biggest problem is a bump in Oyelowo’s Othello who goes from all around good guy to a man crazed with jealousy in an instant. There is no slow change, he simply chooses to believe that Desdemona is cheating and plots her demise. While the performance is excellent the lack of shading diminishes the character because we don't know how such a loving person can hate so quickly.

Ultimately none of that matters because Craig and Oyelowo are so forceful, so inviting, so (fill in you favorite rave term) that nothing matters anywhere along the way. We are seeing all of natures fury on stage and nothing can stand in the way. If this was a film they would win Oscars.If it were Broadway they would either end up sharing the Tony or end up fighting to death for it.

Peter GutiĆ©rrez who went with me to the show said this was probably the best version of the play he’s ever seen. The audience, who you could feel waiting to explode with joy and cheers,  was on its feet with thunderous applause as soon as it was done. Several people joked they would have loved an encore but how could they encore (perhaps doing Hamlet or Lear?) when they pretty much dismantled themselves emotionally and left it all on the stage.

It’s a great show and if you can grab some tickets I suggest you do so. Its’s so good that when I was trying to go to bed after the performance I ended up on the phone with Alec Kubas-Meyer at 130 am trying to help him pick out seats.

Yes it's that good

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