On the Culture Front: Othello, The Tempest, Alternative Valentine's Day Gifts and more

Even in the dark of winter, New York shines with creativity of all stripes that make me happy to be here over any warmer climate. The past month or so has been no exception. New York Theatre Workshop put on Sam Gold's incredible production of "Othello" set in modern day wartime. Countless articles featured its stars Daniel Craig and David Oyelowo, who undoubtedly gave searing first-rate performances. Craig brought a gentle seduction and even humanity to the quintessential villain of Iago while David Oyelowo painted a vivid portrait of a good man destroyed by bad information. What haunts me though is the way Rachel Brosnahan's Desdemona pleaded in vein for her life. Full of passion and sincerity and utterly in the right by any objective court of opinion, she's done in by the misinformation that's rotted Othello's soul.

"Made in China" is a wild fever dream musical sung by lonely puppets on a harebrained adventure but writer/directors Gwendolyn Warnock and Kirjan Waage were inspired by a serious true story: A woman finds a letter in her holiday decorations from a worker who made them detailing horrific working conditions in a Chinese Labor Camp and pleading for help. Using absurdity as a backdrop and contrast in exploring our relationship to the products we use proves to be an effective tool for this mostly entertaining show. Like most fever dreams though, it reaches a head-scratching "how-did-we-get-here?" moment and ends on an activist note that clashes with show's tone, but overall it's one hell of a fun ride.

Urgent desperation hangs in the air throughout Martin McDonagh's "The Beauty Queen of Leenane" in a gnawing way that eats away at Maureen's (Aisling O'Sullivan) sanity in Garry Hines' 20th anniversary revival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Stuck in her tiny childhood home in titular gloomy Irish town caring for her bitterly selfish mother, Mag (Marie Mullen), there isn't much light, literal or figurative, in her life. That is until Pato (Marty Rea) comes along. McDonagh's pitch-dark tale of isolated lives unlived makes "The Glass Managerie" feel sweet.

Phyllida Lloyd concludes her Shakespeare prison trilogy at St. Ann's Warehouse with the bard's most ethereal work, "The Tempest." Interpreted as his farewell to the theater, the play is filled with gorgeous abstraction filtered through a mystical sheen. Lloyd's all-female production, with the help of songs by British folk singer Joan Armatrading, grounds this vision in the stark reality of confinement. The program notes that the Prospero character, Hannah (Harriet Walter), is based on the radical activist Judy Clark who was just pardoned by Governor Cuomo after spending decades locked up. She has long been reformed but is kept in this purgatory existence and this drama that we watch unfold is the only escape available for the inmates.

The first snow of the year happened on the second day of the Winter Jazzfest marathon. I spent it holed up at the New School's Tishman Auditorium. From the perch of a plush leather seat, I discovered the lullaby subtlety of Danish guitarist Jakob Bro. His soft, somber and reflective style never mushes into smooth jazz but rather uses the abstraction of improvisation to create a wondrous sonic landscape. It's a style pioneered by the legendary Bill Frisell, who took the stage later in the evening. Bridging the gap between the two generations of guitarists, bassist Thomas Morgan played with both. He's on Frisell's latest album, "When You Wish Upon A Star," which re-imagines themes from classic films such as "The Godfather" and iconic songs of Americana such as "Moon River." The previous night I was more adventurous and stumbled into my favorite set of the fest, Donny McCaslin. Known for collaborating with David Bowie on his final album, "Blackstar," McCaslin is a force of sound to be reckoned with. Somewhere between post-bop and free jazz McCaslin has carved an unbound space of boundless exploration to fearlessly tread up and down scales on his saxophone - funky and dissonant, unified by a persistent groove and intuitive interplay with his quartet.

New Year's Eve has the potential to cause more chaos and inconvenience than an evening out is worth but Porchlight makes it easy. I rang in the last two new year's at Danny Meyer's southern-themed cocktail bar. This year the theme was camp and encouraged a blessed relaxed attire of jeans and hiking boots. A "campfire" area was set up in the back next to a potent punch station that also stocked a few well-selected beers. Boo Reiners, Elena Skye and the Demolition String Band played bluegrass and blues under a white tent and "counselors" were ever so helpful in finding the next bite (duck and foie gras hush puppies just like at camp) or drink. Highlights included an old fashioned with peated scotch and Wines Among the Pines, an inventive concoction of tequila, brandy and spiced wine syrup. The latter was handed out as parting gift at the end of the night, making for a tasty souvenir.

As another holiday rears up from around the bend, here are a few ideas for Valentine's Day gifts that don't include chocolate or flowers. Jeff Gold's "Total Chaos" appears to be a glossy coffee table book, but it's the closest thing to having Iggy Pop in your living room. The book charts Iggy's life from playing drums as a young teenager opening for Motown legends like the Temptations to founding the Stooges and giving birth to Punk Rock. Told through conversations and large photos of unique memorabilia, this is an easy and ingratiating read. Nomad Goods makes a line of slick products to make life with your iPhone easier. Their wallet tucks a charging cable into a fine leather wallet. It conceals the battery and cord with a James Bond-level of design, seamlessly fusing style and function.

Zakia's Morocco makes products that turn your bathroom into a spa. My favorite is their Moroccan black soap, which comes in a large container that you scoop the gel out of onto a loofah. It feels lighter on the body than regular soap, giving a refreshing feel without being heavily perfumed. I like Taun's small batch skin care because it doesn't have a scent. Writing that line just made me think of the Saturday Night Live sketch Steve Martin's Penis Beauty Cream, but this is definitely for your face. Hard to know the long-term anti-aging results, but it definitely makes my skin feel smoother, and best of all it doesn't feel like anything is on your face.

Bluebellgray's artisan-designed sheets are the brainchild of UK artist Fiona Douglas. The hand-painted patterns are rich with nuance and lying in them feels like being submerged into a cozy painting. While she's known for big floral patterns awash in bold colors (look out for the sheets in the final season of "Girls," which premieres this Sunday), there are options for people who prefer a more understated approach. Both the Sophia Abstract Blue and Ava Heather sets feature subtle patterns of blue. The former is an intricate pattern of lines while the later is an array of blue splotches, each irregular enough to let you know it was done by hand. The Kalkan comforter opens the color palate with quilted flowers but maintains a subdued vibe. It's so warm that you might save on your heating bill. While all of her products are made in the UK, Bluebellgray is available in Bloomingdale's and Macy's across the US.

Finally, Virgil Kaine's High Rye Bourbon is one of the best on the market in the $30 price range. It's served in insanely good cocktails at some of the best bars in the city, including the speakeasy Angel's Share and The Up and Up, but holds up great in a glass by itself. For a readymade cocktail, grab their ginger-infused iteration that comes to life with a splash of club soda and a dash of bitters. The owners, former chefs who've cooked with the likes of Alice Waters and Daniel Humm, take a cooking approach to distilling - meaning that ageing and proportion of ingredients vary from batch-to-batch all in the service of creating the best flavor. Added bonus for music fans: the name was taken from the Band's "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down."

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