A lot of theater folks – they’re a superstitious bunch – think Shakespeare’s play “Macbeth” is cursed. They won’t say its title in a theater except during a rehearsal or performance. In introducing the play last weekend at Sacramento Theatre Company, Executive Producing Director Michael Laun wouldn’t pronounce its name. He welcomed the audience to the opening of “The Scottish Play.”
What’s up with that? According to theater legend, it dates back to the premiere of the play when the actor playing Lady Macbeth died backstage and Shakespeare himself stepped into the role. (He didn’t do well). In a 1672 production in Amsterdam, the actor playing Duncan died because a real dagger had been substituted for a prop one. That’s what some say. Others assert that Shakespeare included a real black magic curse in the dialogue of the three witches and that real witches (there apparently were a bunch of them in England at the time) who attended the play were offended and put a curse on the play. Another theory is that King James I, whose Scottish heritage Shakespeare was trying to celebrate with the play, didn’t like the gruesome bloodiness of it and banned it from production for several years. Shakespeare, disappointed, would refer to it as “that Scottish play” for the rest of his life.
The curse has hung around for centuries. In 1942, a production of the play starring John Gielgud saw the costume designer kill himself right after the premiere and three actors die during its run. And in a 1953 outdoor production starring Charlton Heston as Macbeth, the realistic attack on Macbeth’s castle resulted in a real fire when a gust of wind took flames and smoke toward the audience – and Heston’s legs and groin were burned because – mysteriously – his tights had been soaked in kerosene.
Well, nothing like that happens in the current production on the STC Main Stage. Oh, it’s plenty gruesome and bloody and lots of people “play die,” but everyone survives in real life. The play, directed by Casey McClellan, is performed in two acts with a 15-minute intermission. It gives the audience a little time to assess what’s gone before and prepare for what is yet to come.
The basic plot is this: Scottish generals Macbeth (William Elsman) and Banquo (Michael Jenkinson), on their way home from a victorious battle, encounter a group of witches in the woods. These “weird sisters” inform Macbeth that will become king and that Banquo’s sons shall also be kings. Macbeth makes it home to his castle where Lady Macbeth (Arim Udoffia), having read about the prophecy in a letter from her husband, is ready to become queen. All they have to do is get rid of the current king (Duncan, played by Gregg Koski) – and she has a plan for that.
Mission accomplished, other obstacles have to be overcome and other people have to die. A lot of them. Good ole Banquo is one of them. Macduff (Ian Hopps), who gets a bad rap from the witches, becomes another of Macbeth’s targets. Lady Macduff (Carissa Meagher) and her children get knocked off. In fact, Shakespeare kills off most of the cast, including the ambitious Macbeth and his wife. This should come as no surprise, really. It’s called “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” after all. There is much suffering in this sad commentary of the effects of greed and ambition on the human spirit.
Director McClellan plays up the supernatural elements of the play and the powers of darkness with great help from a quartet of production designers: scenic designer Jessica Bertine, lighting designer April George, sound designer William Myers and costume designer Jessica Minnihan. Their work is exceptional, especially in lighting effects and atmospheric smoke and haze. The only disappointment was that the witches’ boiling cauldron, filled with delightfully disgusting ingredients, didn’t emit any steam. Small criticism for an otherwise remarkable production.
“Macbeth” is presented by Sacramento Theatre Company at 7 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays, through March 18. The theater is at 1419 H St. Tickets are $15-$38.
For tickets or for more information, go to SacTheatre.org or call (916) 443-6722.