Wednesday, November 2, 2016

"weird sisters: macbeth" at Shotgun Players

Monday night: Theaters are (mostly) dark.

Halloween: People dress up and tell scary stories.

Halloween falls on a Monday? Best put together a theater workshop that's a little dark and scary!

And that's just what happened at the Ashby Stage this week, as Shotgun company member Nick Medina put on a workshop of an adaptation of Shakespeare's Scottish Play with only three actors (all of whom have worked quite a bit at Shotgun: Siobhan Doherty, Caitlyn Louchard, and Kenny Toll). It's a heavily condensed version of Macbeth, and the house was very nearly full.

The Adaptation

We start with the three "weird sisters," often known as witches. They chant and make their potion, and one drinks, convulses, passes out, and then recovers as...Macbeth. From here the characters are pretty fluid, though you can tell when it's Macbeth or Banquo speaking, though sometimes there is a chorus of witches, and sometimes an actor switches back and forth between character or witch. It's really quite compelling, as it emphasizes the "weirdness" of it all. Did we really see them? Do I believe what I think they said? What of all these prophecies? Or is it just the witches acting out a story for us? Lots of weird possibilities.

For the first 45 minutes or so, this works really well. We're invited into this sort of surreal world in which the players can't quite believe that things are happening, but they seem to be working out, so maybe it's OK. It's definitely kind of an immersive Macbeth experience for all of us, whether watching or participating.

A number of the scenes are memorized, which is nice, but for much of the play, the actors are holding scripts. That's fine, though they start tearing off pages and tossing them about, which seems to work for a while. Sometime they'll crumple and toss a particularly difficult speech or something, which serves to give a little depth to the characters' feelings, but the device gets a bit old (and the stage littered with paper becomes a bit treacherous to navigate).

Eventually we're all lost in the dark, but along come flashlights to hold under faces, which seems just a bit trite for this "weird" production. Not sure what else I would have done, but self-illumination by flashlight doesn't feel quite right here.

The Problem

For the most part we're all still on board with the whole process until about the time the porter comes in. At this point, we're mostly done with the "weird" intrusions, and we mostly have just three actors trying to juggle the somewhat larger cast of characters. We get Russian nesting dolls for dinner guests and plush toys for Macduff's family.  The whole staging becomes a lot less fluid and immersive and mostly becomes confusing. If you're not already fairly familiar with the text, it is probably pretty difficult to follow just who is saying what. Not so much in the way that earlier you might be hearing the character, or you might be hearing the voice of a witch, ping-ponging the lines such that you aren't sure whether it's dialogue, internal monologue, possession, or what. That's cool. But farther on it's more a case of "who is this talking, and why?" We catch up, but it's very different.

I haven't sorted out in my head whether this represents and intentional shift in the staging, or merely a point where the crew hasn't quite worked out yet how to continue in the original vein. We go from a very interesting, rather riveting sort of metatheatrical ride into something much more conventional, but confusing because of its necessary complexity.

Truth be told, the story itself is getting a little weird again, especially when we come back for a fresh round of prophecy. But by then we're no longer in the realm of spirits who might or might not be there. Now the sisters seem to be more like just some more characters for the cast to juggle. I'd like to see whether they could continue as the thread pulling the whole story along.

The Analysis

After such a long and varied week of theater (and a fairly stressful day at work), it's possible I wasn't in the best state of mind to evaluate this production. That said, at least the first half or so of the play really seemed promising. I was enjoying the interactions of the actors, their characters, and the witches. Talking to my friends and family, we seem to agree that midway things kind of changed course, and were definitely less clear and less compelling. We all managed to stick it out and sort through things to the conclusion, but somehow it didn't feel like the weird sisters who opened the show were still there at the end.

All in all, I thought it was a really interesting approach to the play. I really liked the way scene flowed into scene, as character flowed into character. It seemed totally plausible that a rather complete version of the play could just fit itself into 90 minutes, and perhaps with more work, this adaptation could get there. As it was, it felt like a lot of the audience fell off the bandwagon during the second half.

I thought the actors were terrific, particularly so in the scenes where they were able to work without scripts. I would have been happier if they hadn't ended up wading through a sea of discarded pages, though. I suppose there could be some kind of symbolic importance to the rising tide of chaos that is indeed enveloping the characters, but I think there might be a better way to get that message across.

By the end, I'm thinking there has to be a reason for all this. I'm unclear, though, what the position of the director/adapter is. Were the witches really running things? Were they just manifestations of the inner desires of the characters? I had hoped that somewhere in the late stages there would be some kind of clue as to what direction they wanted me to go, but all I was left with was a lot of questions. I suppose that might have been the point all along, that weird stories raise questions, not answer them.

In any case, it was a fun way to spend the evening. Certainly better than sitting at home waiting for some weird children to wander by. If it had been sold as a finished product, I would probably have been disappointed, but as a workshop of a work in progress (and early progress at that), I thought it quite fun, and it was nice to see so many people show up to share that.