Double, Double: Dueling Macbeths

by Jean Schiffman

SF Shakes and We Players present the same - but differently rendered - productions of "Macbeth" this month.

"Macbeth," one of Shakespeare's most potent tragedies, is on the boards this month in two distinctive productions. Known as the cursed "Scottish play"--according to superstition, its title is not to be spoken within the walls of a theater lest disaster strike--the tale of a royal couple's ruthless ambition and downfall is staged by San Francisco Shakespeare Festival in a neatly trimmed version, free in two parks; and also by We Players as a site-specific walk-through in Fort Point.

San Francisco Shakespeare Festival

Although this is the company's 31st season, it is the first time SF Shakes has produced "Macbeth" in the parks. However, director Kenneth Kelleher has directed the show six times previously. Each time, he becomes intrigued by a different aspect of it. "I consider it a very personal, intimate play," he says. "The things that intrigue me are what is happening within the heart and mind of the two protagonists." For this version, Kelleher cut characters and plot elements that did not directly relate to the unholy journey of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth in their pursuit of power.

That led to some fascinating, and chilling, effects. In studying the text, Kelleher was struck by one of Lady Macbeth's comments: The sleeping and the dead/Are but as pictures. "That percolated in my mind," he says. "The dead have a prominent position in the play…. By the end, Macbeth lives in a world of just him and the dead." So in Kelleher's production, not only does Banquo, murdered early on by Macbeth, famously reappear in the banquet scene but he and Macbeth's other victims also return as blood-streaked ghosts at various times, uttering lines of text traditionally spoken by extraneous characters.

The "wayward sisters" appear here as teenage girls, their incantations transmitted in eerie, recorded voiceovers as they intone Macbeth's rise to power and later promise that Macbeth shall never vanquished be until/Great Birnam Wood to High Dunsinane Hill/shall come and none of woman born/Shall harm Macbeth--prophecies that are ultimately fulfilled. "I wasn't interested in portraying the witches as harbingers of fate or reminders of dark forces but as a reminder of conscience and guilt on the part of the Macbeths," says Kelleher.

Stylistically, he was influenced, not only in the eclectic and vaguely modern costumes but also in the stark, minimalist set, by early German Expressionism--"a kind of macabre internal world that is skewed and tainted and disturbing," he says. Whitened faces, half masks and some particularly dramatic and stylized choreography help create a mood that reflects the inner lives of the murderous pair.

Michael Ray Wisely, the longtime, and consummate, local actor who plays Macbeth, says, "I felt it was important to have a three-dimensional protagonist who has a real deep inner sorrow for what has become of his wife, but who is going to see it through." For him, the play is about avarice and corruption and "all the things that go along with that type of drive to be on top." It is his first time in the role, a role that he has always coveted. The day after his 12th performance, he says that he feels at times that he is being played by it, so to speak, rather than playing it. "Last night, in the banquet scene [where Macbeth confronts the ghost of Banquo], it was an incredible rush," he says. "I felt every part of my being and all my training was coming to bear in this one pinpoint of energy. …In big-idea roles like this, there's the potential for that kind of experience." He feels physically and emotionally drained after every performance--"in a very good way."

The SF Shakes "Macbeth," performed in about 100 minutes without an intermission, is so relentlessly focused that there's the potential for the audience, too, to be swept away by the Bard's evocative language, the singular production elements and the intensity of the acting.

Main Post Parade Ground Lawn, Presidio, through Sept. 15; Jerry Garcia Amphitheater at McLaren Park, Sept. 21 & 22. 558-0888.

We Players

"We just finished killing the entire Macduff family," artistic director Ava Roy remarks cheerfully as I arrive at forbidding Fort Point to watch a rehearsal of We Players' considerably longer version of the play. I stand beside Roy and fight captain Benjamin Stowe on the balcony of the fortress's second story to watch the murder of Banquo scene in the courtyard below; here is where the audience will observe it, too. Stowe shouts down instructions: "Banquo, when you roll over, let go of your sword." Roy's notes concern nuances of psychological motivation.

This is We Players' second time to produce "Macbeth" at Fort Point, in cooperation with the National Park Service (the first time was in 2008), but Roy, who is codirecting with her mentor, John Hadden, and is also playing Lady Macbeth, says that in every one of the company's site-specific shows, there is a fresh discovery about the space.

"In the same way that the Fort is a cauldron where the witches conjure [their magic], we are conjuring a show in this cauldron of space," she says. Audience and performers are surrounded by four stories of brick wall open to sky and the Golden Gate Bridge directly above, and Roy sees the indoor/outdoor aspect of the production as a good match for the public/private affairs of the conniving Macbeths. "There's all this language about masking the truth, about appearing one way and having something else going on inside," she explains, referring to the text: Urging her husband toward murder, Lady Macbeth says, Look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under it. That theme of hidden and presented reality is reflected in the performance space, Roy observes.

Bundled today against the elements, she imagines Fort Point as just about as cold and dank and blustery as a castle in Scotland. And she points out the dramatic sound of waves crashing against the side of the fortress plus the steady whoosh of cars on the bridge overhead, which could represent ocean waves, too. "There's this intense sonic soundscape," she says, "like a drumbeat or heartbeat, like something's getting more and more tightly coiled and coming…"

Four musicians will play an original acoustic score (by Charles Gurke); 15 actors appear in multiple, and sometimes cross-gender, roles, sans amplification. And in an effort to immerse the audience as deeply as possible in the world of the play, Roy is emphasizing natural elements: natural fibers for the costumes, dirt, brass and stones among the props.

The audience enters in two groups, each group following the players to observe scenes from different vantage points and occasionally at different times, although always following the plot linearly. The weird sisters, as they're called in this version of the text, are also servants of the castle and comprise a ubiquitous, almost surreptitious presence--"The walls have ears," says Roy.

As she prepares to play Lady Macbeth, Roy's process is to slow down and savor every word, experiencing emotionally, physically and mentally the images that arise, and feeling their effects. "This is very different psychological territory," she says, "tough and dark." She is also creating a back story for the character. What is Lady Macbeth's personal motivation? she wonders. She must have a need to kill King Duncan (the first of Macbeth's murders) that's more powerful and specific than a general sense of ambition. And what about her non-existent baby? (I have given suck, and know how tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me.)

This is a "Macbeth" out of time, with an occasional subtle nod to the Civil War era in which Fort Point was built--a "Macbeth" rich in the atmosphere evoked by the Bard's luminous poetry and bloody story.

Fort Point, Sept. 5-Oct. 6. 547-0189.