What happens when you love or trust the wrong person? What are the consequences when a good man makes bad choices? And when you talk and talk and talk and still can’t communicate, what do you do?
Those serpentine questions writhe within Shakespeare’s “Othello,” currently in rehearsal at A Noise Within. While preserving the tragedy’s textual integrity, the production challenges common preconceptions of the titular, romantically insecure Moorish general of the Venetian army; his young wife, Desdemona; and Iago, the longtime military aide whose venomous manipulations cause Othello to kill what he loves.
“There’s a level of isolation and loneliness” grounding the intense connection between Othello and Desdemona, says Wayne Carr, the classically trained actor portraying Othello. It’s an astute insight into characters others consider blessed by fortune. That includes “honest Iago,” played by Michael Manuel, who turns on Othello after the latter denies him an expected promotion. Director Jessica Kubzansky acknowledges that some scholars have called Iago “a motive-less malignancy,” but she rejects that characterization.
“The story that I see in the text is about the terrible power of love when it’s thwarted,” she explains. “When Othello says at the end that he has ‘loved not wisely but too well,’ most people assume he is talking about Desdemona — but I think he is equally talking about his brother, Iago, because they [fought] in the wars together. They have had each other’s backs.”
Desdemona is traditionally depicted as submissive, yet she defies her politically powerful father to elope with Othello. Actress Angela Gulner approvingly calls her “a rebel.”
“She has very strong moral values and really knows who she is and is very smart,” notes Gulner, who will also portray Medea in A Noise Within’s spring staging of Mary Zimmerman’s “Argonautika.” “I think she sees herself as a full equal to Othello. She worships the ground he walks on, and he worships the ground she walks on. It begins as a very equally yoked relationship. …
“There are arguments to be made about Desdemona being very naïve, and I do think she is a privileged white woman, and she hasn’t experienced nearly as much of the world as, say, [Iago’s wife] Emilia has. But her choice to love so fully and with all of her being I think makes her strong, as opposed to weak. It just happens that Iago knows how to abuse people’s strengths and is able to take advantage of that.”
Therein lies the tragedy. The interracial relationship between Othello and Desdemona no longer shocks audiences as it did when Paul Robeson and Peggy Ashcroft portrayed the couple in 1930. But perceptions linger that the jealous Othello reinforces “angry black man” stereotypes, and it consequently remains one of the most mettle-testing and simultaneously most controversial roles for actors in the Shakespearean canon.
“It’s not as shocking, not as dangerous here, in this particular place we live in,” Maryland native Carr says of Othello and Desdemona’s relationship, adding that in certain parts of the country their relationship would still trigger looks and comments. “But we’re seeing a lot more racial activity, a lot more hate groups developing, in our world today.
“The potential that we have with this play is to show people how far we have come and yet how far we haven’t come. We’re babies in our evolution. We’re slowly healing. We’re slowly fixing things. There are still residual issues we have. Life is a process. That’s what I’m learning from the play, and it’s a wonderful thing.”
“Othello” has received myriad theatrical and cinematic treatments since it was written in (presumably) 1603. That includes inspired offshoots such as actor/playwright Keith Hamilton Cobb’s solo play “American Moor,” which addresses race — and artistic autonomy — in America via the conceit of an African-American actor auditioning for “Othello” for an offstage, white director. (Cobb will perform “American Moor” on the “Othello” set on March 27.)
“To be completely honest, a lot of my black actor friends who enjoy performing Shakespeare don’t necessarily like ‘Othello,’” Carr states. “Because everybody goes, ‘Oh, you do Shakespeare? You should play Othello, that’s the black role.’” He admits that he was very judgmental toward Othello, until he had the opportunity to play him. Now, he’s more compassionate.
“I’m realizing more and more that he’s just like me and every other person that I know,” he says. “We have our flaws. We have our issues. And he, in a lot of cases, is trying to better himself. Here’s this grown man who hasn’t been in many relationships, he’s finally getting married, and it’s so foreign it makes him almost childlike. [Laughs] He doesn’t know how to deal with it. Whereas war and fighting, he understands that negotiation and push-pull.”
Racism and sexism are “in the backbone” of the play, Gulner says, while lauding its complicated portrait of humanity and the possibilities opened up by the production’s multicultural cast. Issues of privilege — racial, economic or gender-based — are inescapable. Kubzansky says the play feels “shockingly contemporary,” which explains her decision to present it in modern dress and settings, with Venice standing in for Washington, DC, and Cypress representing Afghanistan.
“There’s no point in doing theater that doesn’t speak to us today,” she says. “I want everybody who shows up to see the play to see their world.”
“There’s a lot of political conversation to be had around this play. One of its primary refrains is about reputation, and how easily a man’s reputation is lost. In a world where a false tweet can change the way a person is perceived forever, and in the ‘post-truth’ country that we live in right now, the ways in which falsehoods get perpetrated is so powerful that it just feels like this is talking about right now. There isn’t a section of this play that doesn’t have screaming relevance to our world right this second.”
“Othello” begins previews at A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd., Pasadena, at 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 10, then officially opens 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 16, and runs through April 28; $25-$91. Info: (626) 356-3100. Anoisewithin.org