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Review: Love spins into free-fall in A Noise Within’s ‘Othello’ set in present day

Review: Love spins into free-fall in A Noise Within’s ‘Othello’ set in present day
"Othello's" rift between comrades: Wayne T. Carr, left, as the title character and Michael Manuel as Iago. (Craig Schwartz)

“Othello” is an extended free-fall — a national hero’s plunge from widespread acclamation and joyful new marriage to legendary despair.

In a gripping new staging for A Noise Within, director Jessica Kubzansky intensifies the stomach-floating velocity by lifting the audience particularly high before popping the balloon.

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Early on, the central lovers in Shakespeare’s story — the revered general Othello and his bride, Desdemona — are giddily happy. They grin; they tease; they can’t keep their hands off each other.

Meanwhile, another love story — or so Kubzansky regards it — is turning sour: the one between Othello and his battle-proven comrade Iago. They’ve been to hell and back, cloaking each other in valor. But Iago, feeling insufficiently appreciated, sets about ruining Othello’s happiness — and the plunge begins.

All of this feels of-the-moment because Kubzansky has transferred it from wars between Venice and Turkey back in Shakespeare’s time to U.S. military engagements of the present day. In keeping with this contemporaneity, she has cast the production diversely and with women portraying several of the civic and military figures that Shakespeare designated as male characters.

In these familiar surroundings, we pick up intensified resonance in such details as the racist insults lobbed so casually at Othello, a black man, despite his position of authority, as well as the rapidness with which truth can be warped by someone with an agenda, as Iago has.

Kubzansky is a wonderfully insightful director, as she’s demonstrated time and again in such projects as the Shakespearean riff “Everything That Never Happened,” presented last fall at what is now called Boston Court Pasadena, where she is co-artistic director. She has thought richly and deeply about “Othello,” spelling out her ideas in a persuasive director’s note printed in the program. Much of that is also expressed onstage, but frustratingly, not all.

The newlyweds: Angela Gulner as Desdemona and Wayne T. Carr as Othello.
The newlyweds: Angela Gulner as Desdemona and Wayne T. Carr as Othello. (Craig Schwartz)

The action unfolds on a largely bare stage, with backdrops of corrugated metal appearing once the action shifts to a war zone, approximating makeshift military quarters (set design by Frederica Nascimento).

Portraying Othello, Wayne T. Carr is as calm and capable a military leader as you could wish, a stoicism that evaporates the instant he’s alone with his bride. And how could it not, when she is so irresistibly impish, despite the chaste crucifix at her neck? Much of what makes her so appealing, in Angela Gulner’s portrayal, is that she is so thoroughly sure of herself. She approaches her husband as an equal, even if her strength isn’t the sort rewarded with military ribbons.

Many of the same qualities are seen in Tania Verafield’s portrayal of Iago’s wife, Emilia, whom Kubzansky re-envisions as a soldier. She’s not afraid to speak her mind when truth must be told.

Also riveting are Brian Henderson as Cassio, whose promotion rankles Iago and whose friendly, offhand affection gets twisted by Iago’s lies, and Sally Hughes as a crisp, in-command “duke” with Nancy Pelosi hair.

Demonstrating love between Othello and Iago proves tricky, though, because Iago has begun plotting vengeance already as he speaks his first lines. Nor does the cool precision with which Iago carries out the plan — pretty much the only quality Michael Manuel displays in the role — reveal other characteristics that Othello might have admired.

Still, Iago won’t be ignored. Manuel speaks with a whispered edge, making almost every line sound like an incantation, coaxing Othello to cliff’s edge and then pushing him off.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

‘Othello’

Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd., Pasadena

When: In repertory various Thursdays through Sundays; ends April 28

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Tickets: $25-$91

Info: (626) 356-3121, anoisewithin.org

Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes

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