By Kevin Hopps

As timely as ever, the jealous fellow: ‘Othello.’

“Reputation, reputation, reputation! O, I have lost my reputation!” sounds like a sound bite from the nightly news, a lament from some politician, who’s been caught in a tweet storm of unsubstantiated accusations, scandalous rumors, and embarrassing innuendoes. But no, this is from Shakespeare’s Othello, which is playing at A Noise Within in Pasadena. And it’s said by Cassio (Brian Henderson) after he’s caught participating in a drunken brawl orchestrated by the manipulative Iago (Michael Manuel).

It’s no accident that this rendition of Othello resonates with current events. The director, Jessica Kubzansky, purposefully has set the play in today’s world. The costumes are those of today’s senators and soldiers. And besides the addition of modern-day sets and costumes, a healthy addition of females also contributes to the contemporary feel. A woman plays the Duke of Venice (Sally Hughes). The Venetian statesman Lodovico becomes the female Lodovica (Jeanne Sakata), and Desdemona’s father, Brabantio, now becomes her mother, the Venetian senator, Brabantia (Bonita Friedericy).

Othello is one of Shakespeare’s more famous tragedies, so you know from the start that everyone dies in the end (well, almost everyone). But who’s to blame? Is it Iago for his vengeful and obsessive quest to destroy? Is it Othello (Wayne T. Carr) for his easily ignited jealousy? Or is it the gullible bystanders and witnesses for their failure to see the betrayals and the webs of deceit spun before their eyes, speaking up, as does Emilia (Tania Verafield), only when it’s too late, only after Othello’s wife, Desdemona (Angela Gulner), lies dead? Ah, but perhaps, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Let’s start at the beginning: with motive. Since Othello is a Moor and black, race is often said to play a part in Iago’s motivation to destroy him. And, I suppose, given today’s political climate, that it is always there beneath the surface for speculation. But this performance focuses more on betrayal and jealousy than it does on race.

Right from the start – and here come the spoilers – Iago feels betrayed by Othello, who promotes the less qualified (in Iago’s view) Cassio to second in command. And from there, Iago hatches his foul schemes to ruin Othello. Soon, he’s manipulating Roderigo (Jeremy Rabb) and the naive Cassio to do his bidding. Iago even elicits his own wife, Emilia, to help in his malicious machinations. The “honest Iago” feigns to help Rodrigo get back his lost love (Desdemona) and Cassio his lost reputation. Let’s just say, neither happens. Finally, Iago treacheries work their evil magic. Iago plants the seed of doubt that Desdemona has deceived Othello; betrayed him. And Othello foolishly and fatefully believes him. Then, Iago fans Othello’s fears until an inextinguishable jealousy flames up. Desdemona is doomed.

One might think it preposterous that someone like Iago could stir up such vile and intense emotions. Yet all the actors in this performance of ‘Othello’ are truly skillful and quite persuasive, their honest and passionate portrayals quickly making you a believer, convincing you that betrayal, jealousy, and hatred can be found beneath the surface of any man.

One might also think that a tragedy like Othello is all gloom and doom, but there is humor in this play as well. Iago isn’t the only one who can manipulate. A Noise Within resident artist Jeremy Rabb, in his role as Rodrigo, uses his impeccable comedic timing and interplay with Iago to manipulate the audience, easily provoking laughter just when it’s needed.

Director Jessica Kubzansky’s staging uses every bit of the theater, including the spaces up and down and around the aisles, adding even more energy to the actors’ performances. And the sound designs of John Zalewski manipulate us as well, with a variety of foreboding musical groans and moans, playing almost imperceptible in the background.

With a play like Othello, especially one purposely set in modern times; you can’t help but draw parallels to current events. You can’t help but form your own interpretation of the play.

Here’s mine. Iago represents President Trump, inflaming others with his manipulative words. Othello represents Trump’s gullible followers, allowing him to ignite their latent emotions. And Desdemona? She represents America (freedom, liberty, and justice for all), strangled at the hands of those who profess to love her (as Othello professed to love Desdemona). Oh, and Emila? She represents the rest of us. Complicit by denial, she speaks up only when it’s too late to prevent disaster.

Of course, others will have their own interpretations of this Othello. Decide for yourself.

Highly recommended

2 hours and 55 minutes with a 15-minute intermission

Directed by Jessica Kubzansky
Starring: Wayne T. Carr (Othello), Michael Manuel (Iago), Angela Gulner (Desdemona), Tania Verafield (Emilia), Jeremy Rabb (Rodrigo), Brain Henderson (Cassio)
Scenic Design: Frederica Nascimento
Costume Design: Angela Balogh Calin
Lighting Design: Rose Malone
Sound Design: John Zalewski

Photo (above) by Craig Schwartz: Brian Henderson, Wayne T. Carr, Michael Manuel, and Jeremy Rabb. 

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