A 17th Century Tragedy Gets A 21st Century Look

Los Angeles' premiere classic theatre, A Noise Within, has brought to the stage Shakespeare's Othello, directed by Jessica Kubzansky, one of the Southland's most respected directors. And Ms. Kubzansky has given us a 17th century script adorned in 21st century styles, outfitting civilians characters in business wear, with dress blues and camo gear for military personnel – for Othello is a tale of wartime infighting.

So, the question inevitably arises: what happens when you take a four-hundred-year-old play and dress it up in modern duds? Is it suddenly more pertinent? Does it become easier to find some relevance to our own lives as the action unfolds? Does it jolt the imagination into today's news, or add a depth of understanding to the wars we're now fighting? Do we see in the title character, Othello – a black man leading white army – as a sort of precursor of our own Colin Powell? Do Venice's battle against the Turks parallel our current troubles half-way around the globe? These are judgments each member of the audience must and will make for themselves.

But Othello is not actually about war, or even the place of the military in a society, modern or medieval. It's a tragedy of loving “not wisely, but too well.” It's a game of cat and mouse played between naïve nobility and craven jealousy, between powerful and the subservient.

The artistic tension between what the ear hears and the eye sees will depend upon the patron's taste, and the juxtaposition of a formal public social structure with 21st century informality requires constant mental adjustment on the part of the viewer, but not for the cast of this production which handles it with consummate aplomb.

But what Shakespeare wrote in 17th century poetry is as clear cut as a diamond. Othello is the taut tale of a powerful noble African warrior driven to murder his beloved wife by the scheming of a disgruntled subordinate.

Othello, an exotic, grandiloquent warrior, promotes Cassio, a charming if militarily untested junior officer, to second in command. Iago, a proud, cunning, more experienced fighter, is thus passed over in favor of a man he thinks less qualified. To be demeaned is one thing, but that it is so thoughtlessly arranged by a blackamoor general with whom Iago has fought on many occasions leaves Iago seething. And as Roderigo, a buffoonish friend of Iago remembers it, even before Cassio's elevation Iago has a thing for Othello.

“Thou told'st me thou didst hold him in thy hate.”

Why? Perhaps because everything comes too easily to Othello, for Iago's sense of fairness. Othello was written as an exotic, larger than life figure whose powers of seduction attract not just women's adoration and desire, but men's admiration, devotion, and loyalty. Cassio is a young stud, rising fast through the ranks, destined to become another privileged leader. And that what sticks in Iago's craw.

So Iago weaves his web of destruction around Othello's heart, using first his knowledge of Othello's most dangerous – most troubling – secret. Having gained the adoration of Desdemona, a Venetian politician's lily white, virginal daughter, Othello married her - in secret. But is their relationship on solid? When he is questioned, he responds:

She lov'd me for the dangers I had pass'd;
And I lov'd her that she did pity them.

Is that a firm basis for marriage between a favored, young white girl and a black battle-hardened warrior? Can it weather the raging storm of jealousy Iago sets swirling around them? This production plays down the racial tensions – allowing them, but never focusing on them.

And as if that weren't enough, Iago has another, more intimate grievance. He says – maybe just assumes - the noble Othello has slept with Emilia, Iago's wife. Does he believe it, or is it merely a charge Iago concocts to justify his hatred? The audience must decide for themselves. Whatever the truth, the stage ripe for tragedy. Game, set, match!

Director Kubzansky has also brought the casting into the 21st century. It is the mother of Desdemona who objects to her daughter's marriage to the black warrior, not the father as Shakespeare wrote it. And the council who whom this mother takes her grievance is headed by a female duke in consultation with a mixed gender council. The effect of these gender alterations is yet another issue audience must assess according to their own understanding of human relationships.

ANW's Othello presents the title character as a fine and apparently capable leader of men, but does he have the awe-inspiring nobility to elicit the depth of pathos usually associated with Shakespearian tragedy? The question is, is such “awe” necessary for the show to succeed with the audience?

Check it out. Decide for yourself. However you decide, it is a stage worthy production deserving of attention.

Five Questions for Actor Michael Manuel

A Noise Within is producing the Bard's Othello as part of their 2018-2019 Season: Let Me In. I called upon actor Michael Manuel, who is playing theatre's favorite miscreant Iago, to learn more about this Jessica Kubzansky-helmed presentation of the play.

Roger Q. Mason (RQM): Othello. Everyone has produced it. Why now at A Noise Within?

Michael Manuel (MM): I don't know why ANW decided to produce Othello this season—that is really a question for Geoff and Julia. But I imagine the reason anyone produces Shakespeare is that the themes are universal and resonate in every age. The things that people worried about, suffered over and struggled with, have been and will continue to be, universal to the end of time. Shakespeare writes the human condition.

RQM: Reading about the production, I understand the Jessica Kubzansky is setting it in the modern military. Tell me more. In what ways are you updating the story? Is it just setting or are there reference/line changes?

MM: This question is better directed to Jessica. But I will say, I think she's cast the parts with a sensitivity to how our culture is represented today. In our production women are playing roles that are traditionally played by men. And while that may change, to some degree, how certain moments are interpreted, it also points out and highlights the universal feelings that we all share - protecting our children, or overprotecting as the case may be; unintended or intended racism, which, of course, knows no gender. Another aspect of our production is placing it in Afghanistan. We are faithful to Shakespeare's text and use Cyprus - but we are imagining that we are on a base in Afghanistan. We've discussed the idea of taking over a piece of land and the effect that it has on the people who live there. The Venetians made Cyprus worse for using it as a military outpost, in the same way we are using Afghanistan.

RQM: What I loved about the description of this production was the idea that Iago and Othello were friends until one felt looked over by the other. Considering our current cultural climate, part of which is being attributed to the “silencing” of a certain “majority culture,” this interpretation is entirely relevant. Was Iago's being overlooked for the promotion really the beginning of his hate for the Moor?

MM: I don't know if it was the beginning of the hate—but it certainly was the last straw. In my imagining of our relationship, Iago and Othello have been friends for years. Our friendship precedes our joining the military. I imagine we grew up together, have been friends and brothers since we were kids. And one of the things that we shared was our “otherness.” He was the black guy. I was the Latino. Everyone else was white. When he rose to prominence, and had the ability to help his brother out, he chose rather to do the more political thing—he chose the guy that had all the right breeding. Cassio looks the part. Iago does not. That pisses Iago off. It offends Iago's sense of justice. What is is right. Iago feels like, “of course, he picks the fucking white guy.” Not to mention the fact that Iago thinks that Othello slept with his wife. Not cool.

People think Othello is the face of jealousy. But in my mind, Othello's jealousy pales in comparison to Iago's. Iago's sickness is that everything that he says about other people lives inside him constantly. He notices “triffles light as air” every second of his life. Every tiny unnoticeable thing he adds to the list of personal grievances against him. And like a ticking time bomb - eventually it goes off. And this play is about what happens when that evil is unleashed. The bottom line for me is that there is no answer to your question. There is no one reason for Iago's motivation, because there are a million reasons.

RQM: I understand you trained under the legendary Earle Gister. What are a few things you'll always remember from your time with him?

MM: Earle didn't let you get away with your crap, your tricks—even the tricks you might have used to get into the drama school in the first place. He forced you to be specific, about every single moment. Being specific about the beats of a scene, and the micro beats. He was a master of human behavior - why people do the things they do. He had such respect for actors, and he taught actors how to have respect for people. All people. And that every character in a play was a real person with a full life.

Here's an example: Our first year we did scene work from Chekhov. I was fascinated by the characters in Chekhov that had almost no lines. How do you figure those people out, make them interesting to watch? We asked Earle. Firs is an 80 year-old servant in The Cherry Orchard, and in the last scene of the play, Firs is alone on stage. All the house has been packed up and everyone else is gone. Firs has been locked in and forgotten in the empty house. He only has a couple of lines. And this is the last image of the play. Earle—who had had his voice box removed because of throat cancer, used an electrolarynx (but he could make that thing talk), anyway, Earle walked slowly over to the chair, said his couple of lines and sat. And the way he just sat there. You saw his whole life. The entire class was weeping.

RQM: What's next for you, Michael Manuel?

MM: I'm not sure exactly what's next for me. I'd like to just keep working. Growing. Learning. Why? You hear about a job?

For tickets and more info on OTHELLO, click here.