Theatre review: Long Beach Shakespeare Company’s Othello

From+left%3A+Dee+Dee+Popper+%28Desdemona%29+and+Pedro+Louis+%28Othello%29+in+Long+Beach+Shakespeare+Company%E2%80%99s+Othello
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Theatre review: Long Beach Shakespeare Company’s Othello

From left: Dee Dee Popper (Desdemona) and Pedro Louis (Othello) in Long Beach Shakespeare Company’s Othello

From left: Dee Dee Popper (Desdemona) and Pedro Louis (Othello) in Long Beach Shakespeare Company’s Othello

Photos by Andrew Roberts

From left: Dee Dee Popper (Desdemona) and Pedro Louis (Othello) in Long Beach Shakespeare Company’s Othello

Photos by Andrew Roberts

Photos by Andrew Roberts

From left: Dee Dee Popper (Desdemona) and Pedro Louis (Othello) in Long Beach Shakespeare Company’s Othello

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Continuing its 2019 “season of villains,” the Long Beach Shakespeare Company (LBSC) offers an intensely powerful Shakespearean drama with Othello, through March 16. Between director Brando Cutts’s bold staging and strong performances by the cast, including a female lead as the evil Iago, this story of scheming hatred is riveting, horrifying– and not to be missed.

The fervency of this LBSC production may make you wonder whether you’re in Kansas anymore, to paraphrase Dorothy. Or you may realize, a la Spinal Tap, that “this one goes to 11.” This is Shakespeare with an edge, one that threatens to blow the roof off the intimate Helen Borgers Theatre.

As directed by Cutts, cast members are audacious in their deliveries, bringing ardor and heat to their roles. Erin Manker as Iago is especially intense in expression (if a tad rapid in her speech), making real and visceral her character’s conniving hatred– and brilliance– as he ruthlessly manipulates everyone around him for selfish purposes, without regard for the sanctity of their emotions, reputations or lives.

During a question-and-answer (Q&A) session after one opening-weekend performance, Manker said Iago’s twistedness made her want to play him.

“He’s so bad,” she said of Iago. “And the work that it takes to justify that badness, to me, is a challenge I’d been wanting to take on for a while.”

Casting Manker as a female in the male role wasn’t a conscious choice, Cutts said.

“The way I tend to cast is to look at who I have and who is the best person for the part,” he said. “Also, I didn’t want an overtly masculine Iago either. If you have a masculine Iago, then he comes into contention with Othello […] instead of him kind of creeping up from underneath.”

The focus of Iago’s simmering wrath is Othello (naturally portrayed by Pedro Louis), a dark-skinned Moor who gains power in Venice and marries the fair yet strong Desdemona (Dee Dee Popper), unbeknownst to her father (an amusing Ken Knight), who is informed of the transgression by Iago’s puppet Roderigo (Joey Flint).

Erin Manker (Iago) in Long Beach Shakespeare Company’s Othello

Despite Iago’s revelatory ploy, Othello keeps his favored position with the Duke and eventually sets sail for Cyprus with Desdemona for political business involving the Turks. But Iago relentlessly continues his twisted machinations there, soon– with the aid of a rather enchanted handkerchief– inciting Othello into a jealous rage believing his loving wife has been unfaithful.

Iago’s deceptions victimize most of the other characters as well, all played with aplomb. Alec Ebert is especially convincing as Cassio, whose weakness for drink Iago exploits.

“We all have our shadows,” Ebert said during the Q&A about Cassio’s vulnerability. “When that overtakes him again, that fall becomes so much more of a knife in the gut.”

In a more subdued performance, Christine Semerdzhyan manages to make the passive Emilia– Iago’s mistreated wife and Desdemona’s lady-in-waiting– blossom believably into an impassioned speaker of truth, even at the risk of her own life.

“Emilia is the modern woman in this play,” Cutts remarked after the performance. “She sees and speaks what she sees.”

Set and costume design (Tim Leach and Dana Leach, respectively) provide a rich background imbued with wine and camel colors in counterpoint to the fiery performance.

Melodic string music (Edmund Velasco) and dynamic lighting (Cutts) further transport us into the story, as it descends deeper into the hellish effects of hatred.

That divisive hatred drives Othello’s continued relevance and appeal, as we witness Iago’s selfishness played out to its bitter conclusion.

“I think these characters are in all of us,” Ebert said during the Q&A. “These are universal creatures with very human qualities– strengths and flaws and loves and passions and despairs.”

It’s their flaws that allow Iago to manipulate them, Cutts said.

“And they all have one [common] flaw– they all get so caught up in what they want that they get blinded to what is happening around them,” he added.

LBSC’s production of Othello, in eliciting such raw human emotion, invites us to question whether we, too, are blind, perhaps even to our own divisiveness– our inner Iago.

“The more you can explore those people who are vastly different,” Ebert observed, “the more we can at least have some kind of understanding.”

Othello continues at the Helen Borgers Theatre, 4250 Atlantic Ave., through March 16, with shows Fridays (except March 1) and Saturdays at 8pm, and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets are $22.50 ($12.50 for students). For tickets and information, call (562) 997-1494 or visit LBShakespeare.org.