COURTESY OF THE MAJESTIC THEATRE
The toil & trouble
Majestic theatre zoom-stages self-aware 'Macbeth'
B Y C O R Y F R Y E
A year into the pandemic, our hearts turn to thoughts of the Bard.
Actor/director Martha Benson's had William Shakespeare on her mind since last year, when she was trapped in her small New York apartment, contemplating how the world — and her beloved theater — had changed. A contemplative thinker, she couldn’t help but draw parallels between the effects of coronavirus restrictions and the multilayered sense of isolation that plagues the title protagonist of Macbeth: a Scottish-general-turned-ill-fated despotic ruler driven mad by secrecy, ambition, and desperation. Hopefully, our travails won’t end in despair, but for now is the spring of our Zoom content. (Belated apologies to Richard III.)
Benson has since left the East Coast for graduate school at the University of Oregon, where she’s completing her studies in nonprofit management and continuing her stage career — in whatever form stages are currently available. (Less than two months ago, she starred for Corvallis' Majestic Theatre as the storied Sherlock Holmes.) Benson’s well-acquainted in Shakespeare’s menagerie, having appeared in New York productions of Much Ado About Nothing, The Tempest, and Romeo and Juliet (which she also helmed), so Macbeth was a logical pursuit, and the Majestic, with its estimable stable, felt like the right venue. What started as chatter between Benson and Rachel Kohler, the theater’s program assistant and author of the Sherlock adaptation (as well as Benson’s eventual Hecate), became reality after that production’s curtain fell on Feb. 20.
“Rachel mentioned that she was looking for directors, and I thought, What the heck? Maybe I should do my Macbeth with these wonderful people,” Benson said. “It avalanched from there.”
A casting call went out three weeks later. The search for Macbeth was on. Luckily, it didn’t take long. Angeliki de Morgan was the first to submit for the role, nailing it with a reading of the “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” soliloquy (famously ending with “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” as Macbeth learns of Lady Macbeth’s [Phoebe Gildea] final-act death).
“I was looking for a versatile, subtle actor who had the emotional range to hit Macbeth’s emotional highs and lows,” Benson said. “I wanted someone with an air of command and respect. And I wanted someone who could believably play a commander, a soldier. Angeliki gave a subtle, powerful, incredibly nuanced read. Instantly, I saw my Macbeth. From the get-go, she set the bar so incredibly high that I doubted anyone could surpass her. She walked in and claimed that role, and I was happy to give it to her.
“There’s this saying about Shakespeare’s tragedies that each character is placed in the one situation that’s his or her blind spot. If Hamlet had been in Othello, he would have called Iago’s bluff 20 minutes into the play and the play would be over. If Othello had been in Hamlet’s situation, he would have whipped out his sword and Claudius would be dead. I love Macbeth because it embodies that too. And Angeliki just carries that so well. She has such range. Macbeth is at home on the battlefield. He is a soldier. He is an accomplished commander and a leader. But on the chessboard of politics, he’s completely useless. It is not his skillset. You see Angeliki going from that gravitas and that seriousness to just being a whirlwind of chaos, confusion, and rage, and I love watching that transition.”
Benson adapted the play with Zoom in mind; in fact, it’s almost its own character, cognizant of its limitations and the need for Macbeth to exist in its realm. She’s tightened the already lean five-act script — well, lean by Shakespeare’s standards: at 2,162 lines (a little more than two hours), it's one of his shorter tragedies — to a swift 90 minutes, trimming exposition to establish what she calls a “ferocious pace. It feels like Macbeth takes a running leap off the cliff of ambition and freefalls for the rest of the play to his doom.
“I wanted the story to make sense in the Zoom format. That’s what I focus on with my actors in rehearsals. Performance-wise, my focus is on speed. I want to do whatever I can to keep the audience engaged and involved with this story, given that the Zoom format can be hard to hold people’s attention.”
The three troublesome witches (Jennifer Moody, Jennifer Appleby Chu, and Arlee Olson) who toy with the primary cast’s fates — or, perhaps, just foresee them — exist here to trigger chaos, as usual, and also to disrupt their fellow performers. They’re also the only characters given backdrops generated for Zoom, since they’re meant to inhabit an alternate universe. Their castmates, however, report from more mundane surroundings rooted in modern reality — bedrooms, living rooms, bathrooms, etc. — as both their assigned characters and occasionally as slightly heightened versions of themselves.
“We’ve kept it very fluid and flexible,” Benson. “We never hide from the fact that this is a Zoom show being put on by actors. I wanted to highlight that. It’s whatever’s laying around the house. Some people have amazingly elaborate chain mails laying around. Other people have cool leather jackets or ball gowns, all sorts of things. As an ensemble, we’re breaking the fourth wall.”
It’s an inspired element: At last, Zoom becomes its own dramatic setting, and with its compact worlds, tightened to specific spaces and separated from touch, it’s a format emotionally constructed for such tragedies as the lamentable Macbeth. Live the tragedy live at 7:30 p.m Saturday, April 17, via desktop, phone, or whatever electronic beast grabs your access. Ticket prices range from $0-$10, with a $2 processing fee for online purchases. For more information, prick your thumbs HERE.
Something wicked this way comes ...
As a performer and director, what’s the attraction to William Shakespeare?
As an actor, the attraction is the sensation of being transported into these worlds and into these characters. It feels so, so deep. It’s just fun, and you learn so much about yourself as a human. Then getting to share that with a roomful of friends and strangers is a feeling like no other.
As a director, I love these stories. I know them well. I love watching actors make big discoveries and unlock these words. It’s so much fun to watch people on these journeys.
What’s the playwright’s lasting appeal?
I don’t know if I’m qualified to make a sweeping statement, but I can speak to my own experience. I think Shakespeare’s plays have this language that's so beautiful, poetic, and intricately structured. It has wrapped itself around these timeless and universal stories of humanity, these relationships that anyone can access: a father and a son, two lovers trying to understand each other, the bonds of friendship, sisterhood, a mother and her children. I think there’s always going to be a need for telling these stories.
Would Zoom be a valid means of presentation post-pandemic?
Oh, absolutely. It’s a whole new art form. I jokingly have told people that Zoom plays should be a 60-minute TikTok. (laughs) I would definitely watch a 60-minute TikTok.
What has the Zoom format done for and to professional theater?
The theater industry is undergoing a much-needed revolution right now. Zoom structurally is a very self-aware format. We get to see ourselves, both literally and metaphorically, in a way that traditional theater doesn't allow. We have screens reflecting our faces back at us as we are acting; Zoom rehearsals and shows are recorded and available to us to go back and revisit from a new perspective.
At the same time, the theater industry at large is undergoing a much-needed revolution. Concurrently with the Black Lives Matter movement and the fight for racial justice, the structures that have held power in this industry are being challenged to become inclusive, equitable, and actively anti-racist; and it is being demanded that they hold themselves accountable for ways they have enabled and supported white supremacy in the theater. It is truly a time that demands self-reflection — and I see how Zoom affords us the opportunity to look at ourselves and consider who we want to be and what we want to stand for.
When the theater industry comes out of the pandemic, it will and must be a completely different playing field.