Monday, February 18, 2019

Othello (A Noise Within 2019 Production) Theatre Review

production photo by Craig Schwartz
Shakespeare is always relevant. It is interesting to see which specific plays will seem to address the exact events and troubles we are living through. In these dark days of dishonesty and racism, days when someone’s reputation can be destroyed by allegations and rumors, when people are quick to believe the worst of someone and even quicker to utter the worst about someone, when personal provocations dictate policy, when people don’t research before reacting, Othello is a clear choice of plays to produce. A Noise Within’s new production sets the play in current times with modern dress, as if to show immediately how relevant the action and themes are.

This production opens with a military ceremony, in which Othello (Wayne T. Carr) decorates Cassio (Brian Henderson), as Iago (Michael Manuel) stands at attention. As the others exit, Iago remains to speak directly to the audience (not to Roderigo, as in the text): “Three great ones of the city,/In personal suit to make me his lieutenant.” Iago moves around in front of the stage to speak directly to different audience members, staying at their level, which of course endears him to the audience, connects him to them. After “I am not what I am,” Roderigo (Jeremy Rabb) enters, carrying a “Just Married” banner, immediately establishing himself as a comedic character. He also makes horse noises to back up Iago’s “Barbary horse” line. Brabantio is changed to Brabantia (Bonita Friedericy), so we have Desdemona’s mother instead of her father. Of course, this also causes a change in tone, for a mother’s love is perceived to be different from a father’s love. And maybe it’s not as believable when Brabantia says that her daughter is dead to her. Iago hides among the audience when speaking to Brabantia. There is a humor to his delivery of the lines from within the audience, and the audience laughs, as if it could be any of them speaking. This works well because Iago has already put himself at the audience’s level, and there is the feeling that the audience is acting to keep him hidden, even to protect him. Does this make Iago less of a villain, or does it make the audience more of one? It’s an intriguing dynamic.

In the second scene, when Brabantia and the others enter, pistols are drawn rather than swords. This, of course, is an obvious drawback to choosing a modern setting for one of Shakespeare’s tragedies. You can’t really have a gun battle on stage. Or, at least, a gun battle wouldn’t be as interesting as a sword fight, and can’t last as long. The Duke, like Brabantio, is female in this production, as is Lodovico. Having so many women in positions of power obviously changes the feel of the play somewhat. You get the sense that Desdemona and Emilia are not in as much danger, that they would have clear allies. (More on Emilia in a bit.) Also, having Brabantio be female changes the relationship between Othello and that character. When Othello speaks of how Brabantia loved him, it has quite a different vibe than usual. His getting a mother’s love is different from receiving a father’s love, particularly in this case, as Othello says that Brabantia often wanted to hear of his battles. A father asking him to come around to speak of past battles is different from a mother inviting a man to their home, even for the same reason. When Othello speaks to both Brabantia and the Duke, an interesting triangle is created, with Othello standing center stage, Brabantia down left and the Duke down right. Then, when Desdemona (Angela Gulner) speaks, a second triangle is formed, this one with Othello and Brabantia, which works incredibly well as she talks of “a divided duty.” The Duke’s line “Your son-in-law is far more fair than black” sounds really odd in a modern setting, and drew a strong reaction from the audience.

The character of Roderigo might remind you a bit of Sir Andrew Aguecheek from Twelfth Night. There is a similar goofiness and foolishness to him. Both characters are easily manipulated, easily misled, resulting in wonderful, comedic moments. Most of his interactions are with Iago, who plays him almost effortlessly. When Iago urges Roderigo to “put money in thy purse,” Roderigo actually takes notes. It’s interesting, because you want to feel for Roderigo, but he is such an ass that you can’t hold much sympathy for him. Plus, Iago is the one who speaks directly to us, and so the audience is aligned with him (if perhaps somewhat unwillingly or unconsciously). Iago sits at the edge of the stage to talk with the audience. This is a friendly, intimate and disarming gesture, and it feels natural, as if he isn’t playing us. Of course, that itself makes us wonder if that isn’t exactly how Roderigo feels too. Iago is referred to throughout the play as “honest Iago.” But to the audience, it is true, he is honest. Isn’t he? There are lighting changes when Iago speaks asides to the audience. And I love his delivery of the compliments regarding Othello, “And I dare think he’ll prove to Desdemona/A most dear husband,” for these too have a plain, natural and honest sound.

Most of the male characters in this production are usually dressed in military garb, being soldiers. Emilia (Tania Verafield) is likewise a soldier and wears fatigues. This gives her a more manly energy and disposition. Clearly, she is not going to take any shit. When Othello enters to be reunited with Desdemona after a successful campaign, there is a delightful joy and excitement to his comportment, and we cannot help but like the man. While the soldiers celebrate, a thumping modern beat accompanies their revelry, and a ping pong table and jukebox are brought on stage. Cassio’s line “this is a more exquisite song than the other” has a second, humorous meaning, as the thumping continues in the background, a modern dance beat that sounds exactly the same in all those songs. Because Emilia is a soldier in this production, she is present for some of the revelry (a change from the text), but exits before the brawl. Also, because they are soldiers, there is a wonderful moment when Iago indicates to Othello that Cassio is to blame for the troubles. Cassio is standing at attention, and the sudden turn of his head in surprise at Iago’s statement is quite funny. Both Iago and Cassio are excellent in the following exchange about reputation. Iago’s line “Reputation is an idle and most false imposition, oft got without merit, and lost without deserving” seems to ring particularly true.

In the third act, when Desdemona enters, she wears a bright yellow outfit, matching her light, carefree vibe. She has a playful quality, particularly in the way she delivers her lines to Othello regarding the moment he’ll speak with Cassio: “Why then, tomorrow night, or Tuesday morn;/Or Tuesday noon, or night.” The lightness in her delivery will end up in great contrast to the weight these lines will ultimately carry in Othello’s mind. This is an excellent moment, especially for those already familiar with the play. Iago and Emilia kiss while holding the handkerchief. She seems closer to him in temperament than to Desdemona, in part because she and he are dressed alike, which works with her later lines about how she would commit adultery if it would gain her husband the world. When Othello enters, he is troubled by his doubts of Desdemona’s fidelity. He paces in a circle, going a little crazy, like an animal circling in its cage. And, yes, there is a sense of his being trapped, trapped by his own doubts, his own jealousy. Wayne T. Carr does an excellent job here, never letting the performance get away from him, as it might be easy to do in that moment.

In Act IV Scene ii, Emilia answers Othello as a subordinate to a commander, as they are both soldiers. Then when Desdemona enters, Emilia stands sentry upstage center until Othello dismisses her. The way Othello deliver his “away, away” line to Desdemona, you get the sense he wishes to save her from himself before he does her harm. The line is spoken without anger, a really nice moment. Then his “where I have garner’d up my heart” speech is spoken out toward the audience, as if he can’t look at Desdemona. In this production, Othello says “You, soldier,” calling to Emilia, who enters. In the text, he says “You, mistress,/That have the office opposite to Saint Peter.” Because Emilia is in the military, her relationship with Desdemona feels different in this production, and it seems a bit strange when she helps Desdemona get ready for bed. Emilia’s “Yet have we some revenge” speech contains some anger. That speech is interesting with her dressed in fatigues, traditionally male attire, since she is comparing husbands and wives, men and women.

When Othello enters the bedroom, as Desdemona sleeps, he wears a white wife beater, a humorous touch. The desperation in Desdemona’s voice as she pleads for her life is unsettling and moving. I also like that she struggles for a while, even tries to escape. Othello is magnificent after he has killed her. It can be a difficult scene, and he does a fantastic job. The lines where Desdemona says that nobody has killed her are cut. Emilia’s line “The Moor has kill’d my mistress” is changed to “The Moor has kill’d my friend.” But that doesn’t quite work, because we haven’t witnessed much of a friendship between the two. And when she asks to be placed at Desdemona’s side, it feels odd, given their relationship in this production. It doesn’t ring true. When Othello delivers the line “I took by the throat the circumcised dog,/And smote him thus,” he leaves out the word “thus,” because he does not stab himself in that moment. Instead, he pulls out a pistol a moment later, puts it in his mouth and pulls the trigger. It is sudden, and comes as a shock, but I still prefer the use of blades. This production features some excellent performances, but doesn’t need the modern setting to feel relevant. Shakespeare’s text and the performances certainly succeed in that.

Othello was directed by Jessica Kubzansky. There is one fifteen-minute intermission, coming at the end of Act III Scene iii. The play runs through April 28th. Check the official A Noise Within website for the complete schedule. A Noise Within is located at 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena, California. There is free parking available at the Sierra Madre Villa Metro parking structure at 149 N. Halstead St.

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