Wallbyrd is still kind of the newcomer to the Rochester theater scene. Virginia Monte’s emerging company has put on a few shows in recent years. If you saw The Winter’s Tale (MUCCC), The Duchess of Malfi (MUCCC), The Complete Works of William Shakespeare: Abridged, Romeo and Juliet (Highland Park Bowl), or The Importance of Being Earnest (Lyric Theater), then you’ve seen a Wallbyrd show. Wallbyrd productions tend to have several recognizable features. They like to do interesting things with light and stage effects, they like to re-imagine familiar concepts in new, unexpected ways, they put a priority on movement, and they go out of their way to make their shows accessible to a younger audience (this is not a “tights and ruffs” company).
Their production of Macbeth is right in line with all of this. In Wallbyrd’s production, Scotland is a post-apocalyptic wasteland, filled with cannibal witches, warring tribes, and a mishmash of surviving aspects of culture. It is a world where someone who is 30 is old and 40+ is unrealistic, and it is a world where the ability to procreate is incredibly important. The post-apocalyptic Scotland is staged at the Lyric Theater, and utilizes a minimalist set, with few non-weapon props and a stage area filled with risers and platforms that could have easily been seen in a junkyard. Basically, picture a world that is one part Peter Pan and the lost boys and two parts Mad Max, and you’ll have a pretty decent idea of the world of this production.
One of the things Wallbyrd has always done particularly well is approach classic texts in an off-center kind of way. They did this last summer in their production of Romeo and Juliet, where their Friar Laurence, usually played by a venerable old man, was played instead by Carl Del Buono as a “fresh from the monastery” friar who wanted to change the world. This change led to several heart-breaking moments, such as the one here when Laurence discovers Romeo’s dead body, realizes his role in the death, and can’t bear to look at the corpse of his young protégé:
In Macbeth, there are several such moments, though two stood out to me more than most: the “banquet” scene and the funeral procession. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the title character throws a formal banquet, at which he sees the ghost of a man he’s just had murdered. It unnerves him, and he disrupts the mirth of the dinner party, giving the gathered nobles a first reason to start suspecting Macbeth’s role in the murder of the former king. It’s one of my favorite scenes in the play, primarily because there are so many different ways to do the scene. Does the audience see what Macbeth sees or do they see what the nobles see? It’s also a scene that lends itself to quite a bit of dramatic experimentation. The production at the Stratford Ontario Shakespeare Festival last year added a second ghost (Duncan, the murdered king) to further torment the title character. I was eagerly anticipating this scene in Wallbyrd’s production, and for the first time in ages, I didn’t see it coming. With little warning, the actors all stormed the stage in a highly choreographed dance number, complete with strobe lighting and a bit of mosh pit action. I initially had no idea what was going on. In fact, I turned to my neighbor to ask if we had fallen into an episode of In Living Color. Only when the ghost appeared did I realize that we were in the banquet scene, and once that connection was made, it made perfect sense. Wallbyrd loves to incorporate dance and contemporary music into their productions (as you can see from the attached clip of the Capulet Ball from last summer’s production of Romeo and Juliet), but this wasn’t superfluous in any way. A world with, effectively, no old people WOULDN’T have a formal, sit down banquet. What would a group of tribal teens and 20-somethings have as a social gathering? A rave, and that’s exactly what Wallbyrd gave us.
The other scene that really stood out was more of an addition to the Shakespearean material than anything else. After Duncan is killed, a solemn funeral procession is performed. The scene opens with a priestess chanting a familiar tune (more on this below). The body of Duncan is brought in, and his signature battle axe is then handed to another priestess. A ceremonial passing of the torch of authority (in this case the “torch” being a pendant that is passed from Duncan’s corpse to Macbeth) follows. Finally, all of the cast files out through the audience, led by Duncan and his pall bearers. Two things impressed me about this scene. First, it is another example of Wallbyrd finding meaning between the lines. Second, it put the rock star cast on display. There were well over a dozen actors on stage for this scene. I don’t think any two actors were conveying the same emotion. Jonathan Lowery’s Lennox was stoic, with a set jaw. Eddie Coomber was beside himself with grief. Ged Owen’s Banquo was mourning, yet preoccupied, lost in his own thoughts. This was not a scene where everyone went out and just “acted sad.” Each actor—from star to unnamed extra—clearly had an idea as to how their character was specifically reacting to Duncan’s murder. This show rewards those who pay attention, as the characters along the margins are always doing something (I was particularly delighted by Jackson Mosher in the rave scene—he is desperately attempting to dance with a woman who has no interest whatsoever. It’s a minor play within a play, and these kinds of moments are scattered throughout the production).
This, frankly, is another thing Wallbyrd seems to do well. They find amazing local actors. Many of the actors playing secondary and even bit parts have played leads in Rochester area productions. This trend goes in the other direction as well, as actors like Andy Head, who played the relatively minor part of Paris in last summer’s production of Romeo and Juliet, turned in a strong performance as Macbeth. I’m reminded of one of the arguments made by Bart Van Es in Shakespeare in Company, about how Shakespeare’s distinct style could be traced, in part, to the fact that he had an entire company of excellent actors to write for (an oddity at the time). This production featured several stand-out performances. Head’s Macbeth drove the action. The highlight moment, for me, came in what is Macbeth’s one big “Hamlet” speech (“Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow…”). It features one of the most quotable lines in the play: “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Head began that line and then paused for a significant period of time before blurting out “by an idiot.” It was his character’s moment of realization—the first point since he actively decided to clutch the dagger and murder the king that he thought about what he had done and realized that none of it was worth it.
Another stand out was Shawn Gray, who played Ross. Gray, who played a manic, almost childish Benvolio in last summer’s Romeo and Juliet was the consummate warrior in Macbeth. He played one third of the Macduff family unit—in this post-apocalyptic world, the family unit has been reimagined as collections of warriors and those who can still reproduce; Macduff (played by Caitlin Kenyon) is played as an infertile warrior woman who serves as the husband to Charlotte Moon’s pregnant Lady Macduff (with Gray’s Ross as the brother in arms, breeding male, and third member of the marital trio). In the text, Ross is a relatively minor character. In this production, Gray’s performance is impossible to ignore. While there were several other excellent performances, I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention the tandem of murderers played by Eddie Coomber and Kiefer Schenk. These two local actors—who played the leads in Wallbyrd’s production of The Importance of Being Earnest earlier this year—simply belong on stage together. They are Beavis and Butt-head but with an absurd ability to simultaneously convey affect and nuance while they play such roles. Somewhere out there is a buddy cop movie with their names on it, and I’ll be the first in line to go see it.
Many of the best moments of the play featured the young actress who played Banquo’s child, Fleance. Andy Head’s Macbeth and Fleance (played by Serene Selke-Fisher--thanks to Diana Louise Carter for the help with the name!) have a playful “uncle/niece” kind of relationship. One scene, before the murder of Duncan, shows Fleance trying to sneak up on her father—unsuccessfully. Moments later, Macbeth does succeed in sneaking up on Fleance and grabs her from behind. Macbeth, Banquo, and Fleance all clearly revel in this kind of game. Only a few scenes later, after the murder of Duncan, Banquo and Fleance prepare to leave on a short trip when Macbeth again grabs her from behind. Only this time, Banquo’s hand goes to the hilt of his sword. It is the first clear indication that he no longer trusts his once beloved comrade, and it adds to the trauma of later scenes in the play.
I also enjoyed the casting of a girl to play the role of Fleance—traditionally portrayed as Banquo’s son. The role is an important one, textually, because of the prophecy the witches speak that states that Banquo would not himself be a king, but he would sire a long line of kings. King James I, who ruled England during the second half of Shakespeare’s career, famously claimed to be a descendent of Banquo. As such, Fleance is a key character because even though Malcolm is king at the end of the play, we know that Fleance will, at some point, do great things (and pay attention to the final moments of this production—Fleance offers the audience a glimpse of things to come).
On a side note, there are a couple of fun little “Easter egg” moments in this production, connected to J.R.R. Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings. The tune the priestess chants to begin Duncan’s funeral procession is the same tune as the “Mist and Shadow” song that Pippin sings in Return of the King, and several of the battle cries uttered by the cast as they (frequently) engage in battle are Dwarvish words (again from LotR). This is a fun tip of the hat by Wallbyrd to the idea that Tolkien wrote Lord of the Rings in part due to a dissatisfaction with the way Shakespeare cheated his way out of the prophecies in Macbeth (Tolkien had Ents marching and a woman kill the witch king, as opposed to Shakespeare having the army cut down bits of trees to hide their numbers and having Macduff born via Caesarian section).
Although there is much to praise, there were some things that didn’t necessarily work in this production. The witches were a mixed bag. I loved the idea of a post-apocalyptic witches’ coven, particularly the idea that they would only be capable of speech when enough of them had gathered.* I also enjoyed the move to replace several servant characters with Hecate, played by the delightfully evil Alma Haddock. But the concept soon became overly complicated. In one scene, the witches have a choreographed, ballet-like dance number that feels entirely out of place in this post-apocalyptic world. There is another scene—the one where Macbeth returns to the coven to hear more prophecy—where puppets are utilized. It is a moment of prop-heavy action in what had been, to that point, a fairly barren stage. It might have been more effective to do the effects for the prophecies with light, as Wallbyrd has done so often in the past, or to have constructed more terrifying puppets. The movement in the puppet scenes was suitably eerie, but the puppets themselves, particularly the large one with a "monstrous" face just didn't convey terror. The scenes with the witches thus became some of the best and most flawed scenes in the play, because they had a phenomenal concept, but it felt like the concept was a little over-thought and possibly a bit too ambitious (regarding the puppet construction) for the time constraints of community theater.
Another moment that concerned me was the level of violence in the murder of Macduff’s family. It is effective, and it is disturbing, and it is visceral. I completely understand the point of that scene and what it is supposed to do. It does, however, take this play to a very dark place—it is the darkest and most violent of any of the many productions of Macbeth I have seen—and I would be wary of bringing small children to see it (very “Red Wedding” for those of you who are Game of Thrones fans). A final concern/critique is one that the cast and crew of Wallbyrd couldn’t do anything about: the acoustics. The Lyric is a beautiful venue, and having a new venue for local theater is always a good thing. But it was a church in a past life, and the acoustics are designed to carry ONE voice through that domed roof. The odd part is that the echoing was worse when the acting was best—when actors changed pitch to convey emotion and nuance, the pitch changes created echoes. This was especially true of the scene where Ross reveals the fate of Macduff’s family (though Kenyon’s primal scream of anguish was powerful and believable) as well as the final battle between Macbeth and Macduff.
Ultimately, this was a show I had long been looking forward to seeing. Virginia Monte’s concept for the show was everything that makes a Wallbyrd production worth seeing and her all-star cast of local talent took that concept and made it a reality. To be honest, this show doesn’t quite hit the same highs as last summer’s Romeo and Juliet--though it will likely be a while before anything does hit that mark; Wallbyrd's Romeo and Juliet set a standard for quality in Rochester community Shakespeare--but Macbeth felt like it had the potential to be even better with a little more time and some editing. That, in itself, is remarkable, and what they DID achieve is still an excellent show, and well worth seeing if you are in the Rochester area.
Ticket info HERE.
* Disclaimer—I was the dramaturge for this show. Virginia and I had several conversations about the links between Banquo and James I, as well as many coffee-fueled talks about the witches. I was basically the walking reference text in the early stages of the show’s conception, and was not involved in any of the rehearsals or world-building. As such, my review is based entirely on my experience watching the show for the first time.
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