By May S. Ruiz
William Shakespeare’s ‘Othello,’ A Noise Within’s fifth production in its 2018-2019 season, will be on stage from February 10 through April 28. Directed by Jessica Kubzansky, it stars Wayne T. Carr in the title role, Angela Gulner as Desdemona, Tania Verafield as Emilia, and Michael Manuel as Iago.
Manuel graciously agrees to share with us his thoughts about this classic play and the character he is about to inhabit. He recalls, “I did Othello 20 years ago and I played Cassio; this time I’m Iago. Any time you play a bad guy you can’t think of the character as bad. Even the most evil people believe they’re doing the best they could under the circumstances.
“I just finished doing Toby Belch, in ‘Twelfth Night,’ at the Alley Theatre in Houston. He’s a character who’s like Cassio – the big, drunk, funny guy. And I knew I was going to be doing this so I got to thinking ‘what triggers people into different behaviors?’ What, for instance, drives some to drink?
“For Iago, there are events that push him into that place where he’s just coping with everything that’s happening to him. There’s an inherent frustration, feeling ‘less than’ and being slighted, in some way, that he hasn’t gotten what he deserves. But, on some level, he tells himself ‘Of course, I can’t get it – I don’t look as Cassio does, I don’t speak as well as Cassio does, I don’t have the same upbringing that Cassio has.’”
This is a role Manuel is sympathetic to. He says, “I have a love for characters who might be described as having a grievance of sorts … a chip on their shoulder might not be accurate, but someone who’s trying to prove he’s worthy of being. I gravitate towards characters who weren’t born into privilege and make something of their lives.
“I recently did Lopakhin in ‘The Cherry Orchard’ and he’s someone who resonates with me. He used to be the grounds man of the land which he now owns. When he was a lowly worker, everyone had nicknames for him; so now his attitude is ‘you should have treated me nicely because now you all work for me.”
Continues Manuel, “The other day, among the cast, we were talking about class and perception. We were discussing how Cassio is someone who’s got everything. I went to Yale and there’s a perception that I’m somehow smart or rich. Truth is, I came from a blue-collar background and the neighborhood I grew up in wasn’t the best.
“Just like Lopakhin, my classmates’ parents were teachers, attorneys, and professionals. Growing up, I was embarrassed to tell people that my Dad worked as a garbage collector. But there came a point when I realized that everyone has value and what was shameful was that I hadn’t recognized it until then. Now I’m very proud to let people know what he did for a living!”
Because he played Cassio before and is now taking on the role of Iago, Manuel has a chance to look at both characters on opposite perspectives. He says, “Looking back, I don’t really remember much about that first time I did ‘Othello.’ I did Cassio when I was fresh out of college when I felt I knew everything there was to know, that I’ve figured it all out. Then, I finally grasped that I hardly knew anything; there are so many other layers in both characters that I learned from just living 20 more years since.”
The passage of time has helped Manuel give a more layered interpretation of Iago. “First of all, I’m older and I’ve accepted the fact that I don’t know everything; I no longer harbor that resentment in being told what to do. So now I have a vulnerability because I don’t have to pretend to know more than I do.
“Of course, the trap is that when you’re older you also think you know everything because you’ve gained more experience. So you’re always in the same boat – there’s always someone older or wiser no matter what their age is. I would say my Iago then would have been different from my Iago now,” Manuel expounds.
“It’s funny, this is only my second time doing ‘Othello,’” discloses Manuel. “While ‘Hamlet’ I’ve done five times, ‘Lear’ thrice, ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ I’ve done probably six or seven times, on occasion playing the same character. But there’s so much to mine in this. Since I have never fully figured it out, there’s always something new.
“Jessica’s vision for Iago is that he’s honestly sharing his feelings. I would like to be able to convince everyone on that stage that I’m being truthful and that I believe in everything I’m saying. People can tell when someone isn’t sincere. I think Iago understands people – he might not be book smart but he is clever. I’m sure if people saw his resume, they would say, ‘Of course, he shouldn’t get that high in the military, he isn’t someone who could be elevated to an upper rank.’”
Asked if he wants audiences to hate or empathize with Iago, Manuel replies, “I want people to see that they’re no different than I. I want them to understand there was no other way for me to behave. The challenge is that when a character does something bad he has to check in with the audience – that’s why there’s a lot of soliloquies. He tells the audience what he’s going through and then asks ‘What would you do if you were in my place?’ And follow that up with, ‘You know you’d do exactly as I’m doing’ or, at the very least, ‘You’re thinking of doing the same thing I’m doing right now.’
“In the soliloquies, I’m basically saying ‘There’s nothing wrong with that I’m doing; I’m telling people exactly the truth.’ How they hear it and how they deal with it is up to them. Part of what I would like for the audience to say is, ‘I wanted to hate him but I like him’ or ‘I can’t believe I like someone who’s so awful.’
“I wouldn’t go so far as justifying my actions, so much as showing our commonality. That we share all the same feelings – they’re what make us humans. We plan the way our lives would go and then something happens so we have to adjust. And one of the things Iago does better than most is that he’s a great improviser. He’s in constant firefights and each one requires a different tactic. As we all do, Iago reacts in the moment. I think that’s what makes these characters so fascinating.
Manuel adds, “I break down what Iago is saying and what people are saying about him. I think his choice of words reveal a lot. There are some people he addresses as ‘thee’ or ‘thou’ versus ‘you’ or ‘your’ he uses with others. Shakespeare is a master of language and he uses a combination of word sounds to signify emotions and motives. I could spend my whole life trying to figure out how to play a part and still discover something I haven’t seen the first time.”
However many Shakespeare productions Manuel has been in, each performance of the same play is different. He explains, “It’s really the conceit of the play – it depends on the actors and the message the director wants to impart. This ‘Othello’ is set in 2019 so that has given me a different perspective; it also informs the character’s actions. Wayne’s ‘Othello’ is very different from Chuck’s, the actor who played that part in the first ‘Othello’ I was involved in. As Iago, my relationship to this ‘Othello’ changed too.
“Yet, it doesn’t matter what period this ‘Othello’ is set in. Shakespeare’s plays have endured through the years because they’re timeless. Everything that was relevant at that time is still relevant today. The feelings that we have – jealousy, anger, revenge, pettiness – all these are innate in everyone, then and now. That’s the reason for classical theater – the message resonates with everyone.”
We can all agree with Manuel. Shakespeare’s genius is that he perfectly captures the essence and the complexity of human behavior. When we watch his plays, we recognize ourselves and empathize with the characters on stage – we are all capable of heroic actions as much as we succumb to deplorable deeds. And that, ultimately, our doing or undoing comes down to how we choose to act at any given moment.