By Colin Dabkowski
From The Buffalo News, 6/19/07

When Jolie Garrett walked into a casting room in New York City in April, Shakespeare in Delaware Park’s Saul Elkin knew he was “the one.”

Garrett performed a monologue from the first act of “Othello” using the room’s baby grand piano and floor-to-ceiling mirror to accentuate his performance. As Garrett performed the scene, a plea the Moor Othello makes to justify his love for the white Desdemona, Elkin and festival Managing Director Lisa Ludwig were taken aback.

“She loved me for the dangers I had pass’d,/ And I loved her that she did pity them,” Garrett said, nearing the end of the famous speech. “This only is the witchcraft I have used:/ Here comes the lady; let her witness it.”

“We just pulled back in our chairs and thought, ‘God, will this guy ever accept the role?’” said Elkin, the executive and artistic director of the festival.

Luckily for them, Ludwig said, he accepted immediately.

“To me, it’s very ‘Matrix,’ very Keanu Reeves,” said Garrett, a New York-based actor who beat out a field of 30 competitors for the lead role in “Othello,” the second production of the Shakespeare festival’s 33rd season set to debut on July 26. Opening the season will be “All’s Well That Ends Well,” starting at 7:30 p.m. Thursday.

“I have not played Othello, but I have been working on the character for 10 years, adding layer upon layer upon layer, and they saw that when I walked into the room,” Garrett said. “It cannot be mistaken.”

Even over the phone, Garrett’s sentences are measured, carefully considered and often grandiose, recalling the dignity and presence of Laurence Fishburne (who played Othello opposite Kenneth Branagh’s villainous Iago in a 1995 film). The man might as well converse in iambic pentameter. Having appeared in Shakespeare productions in New York and around the country, Garrett is finally ready to set his decade-in-the making creation on its feet.

Considered one of Shakespeare’s best and most memorable tragic characters, Othello demands an actor of commanding presence who embodies the necessary combination of blind trust and ruinous jealousy that sits at the heart of the play.

Elkin, the festival’s executive and artistic director since its inception in 1976, has only staged Othello once, in 1991.

With the title role secured, Elkin looked to the brimming Buffalo theater community to fill the role of the evil and duplicitous Iago, who will be played by veteran Tim Newell. With perennial festival leading man Paul Todaro spending a summer in Pittsburgh, Newell expressed delight at the opportunity in his Artie Award acceptance speech in early June, in which he jokingly thanked Todaro for skipping town so he could play the juicy role.

But for all the familiar faces that will grace the festival’s outdoor stage, a sizable contingent of newcomers, both young and old, are taking cracks at some venerable roles.

The first production, Shakespeare’s comedy “All’s Well That Ends Well,” will star, among others, Shakespeare in the Park newcomers Robert Rutland (seen often at Studio Arena Theatre) as the King, and the 22-year-old Andy Moss as the arrogant young Bertram, a character he says embodies a kind of “preteen angst.”

Moss, a recent graduate of the University at Buffalo’s musical theater program, is excited at the transition from the classroom to the stage, where some of his former teachers will become his peers.

“I think all the stuff I learned from them was great, but I’m learning more being onstage with them than I ever did in class,” Moss said. “You learn to take all that education you have and make it into something that’s a true technique.”

The debut of “All’s Well That Ends Well” on Thursday marks the long-awaited return of director Derek Campbell to the Delaware Park stage. His last stint as a director in Delaware Park was 1984’s “Measure for Measure.”

“Derek coming back is tremendous,” Moss said, noting that he had not yet been born the last time Campbell directed a Shakespeare in Delaware Park production.

Because most of Buffalo’s theaters take a break for the summer, Moss added that Shakespeare in Delaware Park provides an opportunity for different segments of the theater community to merge.

For Elkin, the oft-cited universal nature of Shakespeare’s work is motivation to stay faithful to the Bard’s scripts, while past productions he’s directed have sometimes taken a more radical approach. “I no longer feel now that I have to force relevance,” Elkin said. “The plays sort of speak for themselves.”

As for “All’s Well That Ends Well,” Campbell is moving the comedy up several centuries to the Edwardian period (about 1901-1919), and some of the rehearsal techniques might seem a little unorthodox. Costume designer Ken Shaw, for instance, hosted actors at his house to watch episodes of the British reality show “Manor House,” which is set in Edwardian Britain, to get an idea of the characters’ dress and movements.

Whatever the interpretations or directorial approaches, Elkin said that the impact of the summer event — which reaches 50,000 people each summer — is undeniable.

“There is a moment, when the sun goes down, it starts to get dark and the stage lights take over, the sounds of the city diminish, and audiences stop fidgeting,” Elkin said. “It really is very magical.”