OTHELLO by William Shakespeare, directed by Michael Waller, with Andrew Moodie, Tova Smith, Richard Alan Campbell, Jane Moffat, Matt Deslippe, Anthony Malarky, Rahnuma Panthaky, Mark Brownell, Kevin Hammond and Sophie Schottlander. Presented by Shakespeare in the Rough at Withrow Park (south of Danforth, between Logan and Carlaw). Previews begin Wednesday (July 31, an Actor's Fund benefit), opens August 2 and runs to September 2, Thursday-Saturday 7 pm, matinees Saturday, Sunday and holiday Mondays 2 pm. Pwyc, $10 suggested. 416-536-0916.
You can't know how many dogs wander through Withrow Park until you've sat on the grass for an hour doing an interview.It's 9 am on a hot Sunday morning, and at least four sniffing canines have joined director Michael Waller, actor Andrew Moodie and me as we talk about Othello, Shakespeare in the Rough's latest outdoor production.
"You just can't get away from them," laughs Waller, as the regular "plop" of tennis balls hitting rackets sounds faintly from the courts nearby. "Their presence means you can never take yourself too seriously.
"One of the actors was into an intense monologue the other day when a dog came by and started sniffing his crotch. Our stage manager had his bagel stolen, too."
Moodie quickly eyes his food to be sure it's still there.
Entering its ninth season, Shakespeare in the Rough (SITR) has built its reputation on the Bard's less frequently produced plays, works like Cymbeline and King John. Until last year, performances were in the daytime, allowing them none of the lighting effects available to productions in High Park.
Now SITR is doing regular early evening as well as matinee shows, but the company still holds onto the ace that makes its work special -- the park itself and the vistas it provides.
While the central action is contained between and in front of two large trees -- they form a kind of proscenium for the actors -- directors use the areas beyond to present tableaux that illustrate narrative background or scenes that are only mentioned in the text.
"I love those trees," enthuses Waller, an actor-director whose most recent work includes directing Grendelmaus, Pop Song and bittergirl. "They allow for huge David Lean entrances, like something out of Lawrence Of Arabia."
According to both Moodie and Waller, even the birds that nest in the trees want to be in showbiz.
As if on cue, a sparrow flies down and settles a foot from Moodie, who's hunkered down to talk.
"Oh, interview me!" croons the director in a high-pitched avian voice.
Othello marks Waller's SITR debut, as it does Moodie's, but taking on the part of the passionate Moor tricked into killing the woman he loves has been on Moodie's theatrical wish list for a long time.
"It's such a delicious role for a black male actor," says Moodie, who branched out as playwright with Riot and other very good scripts. "But I kept being told I was too young to do it. Now," he says with a comic grimace, "I've slowly realized that I've reached the right age."
Both actor and director appreciate the difficulty of the part, since Othello must feel so many passions intensely and move swiftly from one to another.
"He goes from married joy to frothing at the mouth in a few scenes," explains Waller, "and we've got to communicate that switch credibly, given that the action moves with turbo-jet engines from about the middle of the play.
"There's a story that 19th-century English actor Edmund Kean vomited blood and died after playing Othello," adds Moodie, a smile in the corner of his mouth. "Well, mine'll be a little less taxing."
Waller's reading of the play emphasizes the warlike atmosphere that surrounds the characters, as Othello tries to keep peace on the island of Cyprus.
"This is an adult play about sex and power, full of disturbing images. The feeling of war is everywhere, but no one is actually at war. That's what our own society is going through right now.
"It's an easy time to play on people's paranoia. In Othello, the villainous Iago has a victim who knows only war, someone who's easy to manipulate because he has a skewed version of reality."
The depth of the role impresses not only Moodie the actor but also Moodie the playwright.
"It always dazzles me that Shakespeare created a black man with such compassion. Othello is a more developed character -- more powerful, more intricate -- than I'll ever write," he says with a rueful grin.
"I won't even try to compete." email@example.com preview