Interview: Playwright Chris Stezin on ‘Mack, Beth,’ Playing Now at The Keegan Theatre

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Chris Stezin is a playwright, actor, and director whose work—on and off the stage—has brightened the marquees of DC theatres for more than two decades.

The author of roughly 25 plays in as many years, Chris has been described by the Washington Post as “the Neil Simon of experimental Washington theater.”

Playwright Chris Stezin. Photo by Sue Dudek.

Chris is currently the Playwright-in-Residence at the Rose Theatre Company, home of DC’s leading new play development program.

His newest play, Mack, Beth, is a contemporary spin on Shakespeare’s tragedy, plucked from its origins in a Scottish castle to an office building in a booming enclave of corporate America.

I talked to Chris shortly before the play opened at the Keegan Theatre in downtown DC.

Ravelle: Why a new take on Macbeth?

Chris: I had approached the Keegan’s founder and artistic director, Mark Rhea, about the possibility of my directing a Shakespearean play. Susan Rhea, the associate director, came up with a different idea—a modern version of one of the tragedies—and suggested that I write it.
I chose Macbeth because it is probably the best-known of Shakespeare’s plays, and so would be familiar to a modern audience.

In your version – called Mack, Beth – the protagonists are a power couple motivated by ambition and greed. Their battleground is not the political arena but the business one. Why the switch?

The world of politics would be right on the nose, but it’s too obvious. I think the business world—and particularly that corner of it devoted to technology—is more interesting because the stakes are so high.

In Shakespeare’s time, the protagonists were often aristocrats. They were the ones who wielded power and influence.

Today, our nobility is more apt to be the celebrities and technology titans who meet at Davos.

‘Mack’—who in this play is a businessman without a hint of ethical restraint—sounds like our newly elected president. Is that deliberate?

No, it’s pure happenstance, though I admit the timing is uncanny. But it was definitely not intentional. When I began the play, four years ago, a Trump inauguration was inconceivable.

What about ‘Beth’–the new Lady M? Is she as ambitious as her predecessor?

I think she’s exactly like Lady Macbeth. In fact, I see her as the most memorable character in the play. She’s the one who fuels her husband’s greed. She’s different on the surface, in that she’s a successful businesswoman in her own right, but then Lady Macbeth is no commoner.

One of the themes that runs through both the original and my retelling is that she’s childless, and that her ambition may be the result of her sense of loss. She’s afraid of dying with nothing to leave behind, no legacy or mourners.

Is that a reflection on something in your own life?

Maybe. Children are a very important part of my life. My wife and I have five kids, between the ages of 12 and 2, and that gives me a strong sense of something to hold onto.

Tell us about your early life. When did you discover Shakespeare and the “real” Macbeth?

Although I was born in New Jersey, the youngest of five children, we moved to South Carolina when I was 9 or 10. My father was an art teacher who retired early.

I first read Macbeth when I was a student at Clemson University. I loved the play and decided, then and there, to devote my life to the theatre. Initially I was an actor.

Where have you performed in the DC area?

You name it—the Folger, Theater J, WSC (now Avant Bard), Charter Theater, the Olney Theatre, and Washington Stage Guild. And of course the Keegan, where I’m an Artistic Associate.

Is this your first re-telling of a Shakespearean play?

Yes, though I hope to do it again, preferably in collaboration with the Keegan. I find Shakespeare’s work lends itself endlessly to re-invention. As a writer, he is wonderfully resourceful.

How do you feel about being compared to Neil Simon?

Obviously, I’m flattered. My work is very different from his—in that he’s basically Broadway, whereas my work is experimental. But we’re both prolific. And we’re both craftsmen. I respect him tremendously.

Tell us about the development of the play. Did you have any help?

Yes, I was lucky enough to be named “Playwright-in-Resident” at First Draft, a program run by the Rose Theatre, where I had the opportunity to have several readings and talk-backs.

One of my main concerns was to be sure that the play could stand on its own. As I remarked at one of those readings, “I’m no Shakespeare” –which the audience seconded—but I wanted to be sure the play would be relevant to modern audiences, such as those seeing it now at the Keegan.

I think audiences today will find it very relevant. DC theatre-goers will be stunned by the familiarity of this tale and by the determination of these characters to weave their own defeat.

Running Time: 90 minutes, plus one intermission.

Mack, Beth plays through February 11, 2017 at Keegan Theatre – 1742 Church St NW in Washington D.C. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 265-3767, or purchase them online.

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