Interview: Othello, Salamander Theatre

by Andrew Alexander

When I visited a rehearsal of the cast of Salamander Theatre’s Othello last week in the basement of a church in the Glebe, the show was very much in component pieces, coming together. The basement was filled with props, costumes and set pieces, and groups of actors going over various scenes. Eleanor Crowder, the show’s director, took a few of the actors aside to speak with me.

“We’re madly working on lines, still at the point just before we open,” says Eleanor. “After six months of building a show around one person playing Othello, his life went ballistic in the first week of rehearsal. He had to drop out; there was nothing he could do.” After some extended reaching out to the theatre community, Eleanor was rewarded not with one but two potential Othellos: Zach Raynor, who’s an actor and football player at Ottawa University, and PrufRock, who’s a slam poet and D.J. Instead of choosing between the two, Eleanor decided to alternate between the two.

“In this show we were already alternating Desdemonas, so it made sense to alternate Othellos,” explains Eleanor. “What tends to happen in our shows anyway, is that there are lots and lots of amazingly qualified women who want to do Shakespeare, and just the real world of acting, it’s very female-dominated. There are more women than men, and so we almost always double the women. And in Shakespeare you’ve got three juicy female parts. So women are always playing some male roles, and a lead, and alternating in the blue and the red cast. We’ve always done that.”

The doubling of cast members has its advantages, including the ability for an actor to take a step back and watch how the role they’re playing integrates into the larger scenario of the whole play. For actor PrufRock, it was very helpful, as the show represents his first foray into theatre. “To have somebody else is kind of nice, because then I can watch somebody else do it as well, pick up techniques from them. It’s a lot different watching the show when you’re part of the show, and watching the show as a spectator; it gives different flavours, gives different things you can see. There are other things that I can add, just by watching the interaction from everyone else.”

For actor Guy Buller, who plays the evil Iago, the doubling process renews the show with each new combination. “What’s striking about the doubling up is how different the individual actors are, what they bring to their characters. That’s what makes it very fresh: if Grace or Katie is playing Desdemona or Zack or PrufRock is playing Othello, he comes across as different, because there’s a different chemistry between them. I can’t get stale in this show.”

Actor Katie Ryerson agrees. “It really makes you have to listen: when I’m doing it with Pruf, and when I’m doing it with Zack, they’re really two totally different deliveries. You can’t just give the same response – you have to listen, you have to get into it.”

Those not familiar with the story of Othello won’t be confused with the action, but Eleanor helpfully gives me the thumbnail sketch. “A black dude achieves amazing success. He’s survived traumatic, horrifying battlefield injuries; he’s survived being captured and sold into slavery; he’s shown up in the mercenary troupe, rescued by Iago, and turns out being this brilliant soldier. And they’ve ended up on a layover in Venice, because they’ve just staved of the war in Cyprus for a while with the Turks. Othello’s never been in a city before, and he becomes the darling of the place; they take him in, and feed him and they want him to tell war stories, and he’s got great stories. But to the horror of the magnificos of Venice, he ends up having the daughter of one of the most expensive ones fall in love with him. And that’s where the story starts. Within his troupe the jealousy starts to seed; it’s the old story, as soon as you put a woman in a war camp, boom. Iago, who is his mentor in many ways, feels deeply cheated. Because Othello has put a new younger guy in charge, Michael Cassio, who’s an idiot as far as Iago’s concerned. And Iago is relegated to being Othello’s agent, his body armour. Iago decides to get revenge, and does it artistically, and completely, and viciously.”

So, good, fun, family-friendly fare? It seems to work, as their first audience was a group of small kids all under the age of ten. Guy notes that it was probably their toughest audience. “What was interesting about it was that you had these really young kids, who would dash off across the street to the house to go to the bathroom, and would come back to see the rest of the show. Because kids are really straight up: if they like something, they’ll let you know. And if they don’t like something, they’ll let you know.”

In the midst of a Fringe filled with new modern works, does a Shakespeare stand a chance? This cast certainly thinks so. “People haven’t changed; this play is so particular, because every character is so human,” says Katie. “We all know Iagos, we know Othellos, we know them.”

Guy agrees. “We all know manipulators. We all know people who would smile to your face, but stab you in the back if they had the chance. We know people who would give themselves freely, like a Bianca, and be jaded, but still come back and love the person who they continue to love. We know the heroes in our lives, the Othellos, that are trying to do the best they can, but get derided by not listening to their own heart. Shakespeare wrote about the human condition, especially in this play. It’s so well-crafted: there’s always jealousy, there’s always rage, there is always lying, there’s always honesty.”

All of which you can see at the Abe and Sayde Bronfman Amphitheatre, BYOV H; Othello plays tonight at 9:00, and Saturday at 7:00. It’s a comfortable outdoor venue, but you may want to bring a blanket and a cushion.

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