A New Dynasty Commands the Stage in the Folger Theatre’s ‘Macbeth’

DC Welcomes the Peakes Family—Ian, Karen and Owen—in a Rarely-Performed 350-year-old Musical Adaptation of Shakespeare’s ‘Scottish Play’

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“The moon is down; I have not heard the clock.”

Those words—spoken by 10-year-old Owen Peakes in the Folger Theatre’s startling new production of Macbeth—send a faint tremor through the packed house.

Lady Macduff (Karen Peakes) and Fleance (Owen Peakes) find themselves in Bedlam asylum in Folger Theatre’s Macbeth. On stage September 4–23, 2018. Photo by Brittany Diliberto.
Lady Macduff (Karen Peakes) and Fleance (Owen Peakes) in Folger Theatre’s Macbeth. On stage September 4–23, 2018. Photo by Brittany Diliberto.

It’s Act Two. And the audience, by now, is aware that this is not your usual Macbeth. Instead, it’s an adaptation written during the Restoration, when Cromwell and his lot were finally thrown out, the Stuarts were back and the theaters were finally reopened.

In this version, there are real women on stage, recognizable music (Purcell et al, played by the fine musicians of the Folger Consort) and some new dialogue. And yes, the witches now sing.

But back to Act Two and those ominous words, spoken by an innocent child:

No, the clock has not been heard. Yet it is past midnight. And evil deeds lie afoot.

Playing out those deeds—one as the villain and two as witnesses to the mayhem—are three actors who are members of a single family: Owen, Ian, and Karen Peakes.

While Owen—the boy who plays Fleance, Banquo’s son—is new to the professional stage, his real-life parents, Ian and Karen, have pedigrees as high as the rafters.

I had a chance to meet the whole family before the show’s official opening on September 9th, when we gathered over coffee just a block or two from the Folger, and caught up with their past and present theater lives.

In this production—as in several others—Owen’s father, Ian Merrill Peakes, is Macbeth himself. A winner of the Helen Hayes and Barrymore Awards, Ian, who just turned 49, has played nearly a hundred roles, both within the Shakespeare canon and in TV, film and contemporary drama.

“Upon my head they plac’d a fruitless crown.” Ian Merrill Peakes as Macbeth in Folger Theatre’s Macbeth. On stage September 4–23, 2018. Photo by Brittany Diliberto.
“Upon my head they plac’d a fruitless crown.” Ian Merrill Peakes as Macbeth in Folger Theatre’s Macbeth. On stage September 4–23, 2018. Photo by Brittany Diliberto.

Karen is Lady Macduff. Six years his junior, she and Ian met at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, when she was a theater major at Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales (now DeSales University), and he was a professional actor.

“He was an older man, a real actor. And I was smitten,” she said, her blue eyes widening with amazement over something that happened 22 years ago. Today, they’re still celebrating their good luck at finding each other and at being able to build such rewarding careers.

They’ve appeared together on stage many times, both in Philadelphia—where they live just outside the city, in a suburb called Merchantville, NJ—as well as in DC. This is their second Macbeth at the Folger, and it’s an anniversary of sorts. Ten years ago, the couple played the same roles. (In fact, Owen was technically there too, since Karen was seven months pregnant at the time).

In addition to performing in dozens of plays in the Philadelphia area, Karen has recorded numerous audiobooks and done voice-overs for animated films.

Acting is very much the family trade. Ian’s father was John Peakes, a leading classical actor and co-founder of the famous BoarsHead Theater in Lansing, Michigan.

“My dad and I were very close,” Ian said, reminiscing about his early years. “I grew up in the theater. I learned stagecraft by watching my father act. In fact, I never had a formal acting lesson in my life. I just started doing it.”

Ironically, John—the father—did not grow up in the theater. In fact, he came to the stage by accident. Here’s how Ian tells it:

“Dad was in the Navy, on a boat that docked in New York. He wanted to look for girls, but another sailor, who was a dentist in real life, pointed him toward Broadway instead. So Dad gave it a try. He and the dentist saw four plays in two days, and that did it.”

Although he never saw the dentist again, John was a theater-lover from then on. As soon as he got out of the Navy, he hit the books, getting his Ph.D. in theater at the University of Iowa. Shortly afterward, he and another professor opened the theater in nearby Lansing, which, despite being the state capital, was a sleepy little town.

Despite its being in the hinterlands, the theater became a beacon for the acting community. Many future stars—including William Hurt—began at BoarsHead under John Peakes.

Although he ultimately moved to Philadelphia, to be near family, John did not retire. Instead, he continued acting and directing, with roles that included everything from Othello to On Golden Pond. The role of Lear in King Lear was his favorite. He played it three times.

When John died, a year ago, it was Owen who evoked the final words. According to Ian, “My father was in a coma, but when he heard his grandson’s voice, he opened his eyes, said, ‘Hello, you’re here,’ then smiled and slipped back under. It was the best thing that ever happened.”

Young Fleance (Owen Peakes) calls out to his father, who is ambushed by Macbeth’s hired men. Macbeth is on stage at Folger Theatre, September 4–23, 2018. Photo by Brittany Diliberto.
Young Fleance (Owen Peakes) calls out to his father, who is ambushed by Macbeth’s hired men. Macbeth is on stage at Folger Theatre, September 4–23, 2018. Photo by Brittany Diliberto.

Seeing the death of Banquo is, of course, very different from seeing a loved one die in the flesh. “Yet we all found the death of Banquo more poignant because of Owen and that moment between them,” said Karen.

Thanks to a short run, Owen, who is now in fifth grade, will be missing just one and a half weeks of school. His favorite subjects are reading and writing. He particularly likes writing stories, which he describes as “comic and creepy.”

Although Macbeth is his first venture onto the professional stage, he has several school productions under his belt, including Seussical, the Musical, where he played the ‘Who,’ and 101 Dalmatians, where he played Pongo. He has also done a voice-over, in Blithe Spirit, at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival.

Asked about the long days of rehearsals, Owen Peakes admitted that some days were boring, but that most of the time it was fun to be working with his mom and dad.

Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, plus one intermission.

Macbeth plays through September 23, 2018, at the Folger Theatre – 201 East Capitol Street, SE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 544-7077, or purchase them online.

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