How, exactly, does one make theater in the middle of a pandemic? People are sitting on the couch streaming The Umbrella Academy. Broadway is closed until January 3, 2021. Much of local theater is now online for the duration.
Each summer, Prince George’s County Shakespeare in the Parks traditionally tours a professional, family-friendly production of the Bard throughout the county. This year, due to COVID-19, that was not possible. Led by Artistic Director Chris Dwyer, they came up with an intriguing solution: a radio drama. Their Macbeth is set among the gangs of New York of the 1860s. The Civil War is raging; unrest plagues the streets; and Macbeth encounters the Weird Sisters in the city sewers. It is fast-moving and full of original touches. Given the recent popularity of podcasts, it might spark increased interest in the form itself.
Dwyer, Booth Master Alan Ernstein, and Stage Manager Brianna Manente exercised considerable ingenuity in realizing their vision. They rehearsed via Zoom for a week. The play was edited down to 70 minutes for educational use. Actors came in and out during designated call times. On-site audio technician was Kirk Walterick.
They used two home-made sound booths, affectionately christened the “blanket forts” in Montpelier Arts Center. When the first blanket fort was used and finished, they stripped it down, aired out the area, and used the second booth on the other side of the large room. The first booth was then disinfected outside and left outside to air out.
Sound Engineer was Mac Owens, with original music by Tori Boutin. We hear owls, ravens; the dripping of water in the sewer; crowds cheering Macbeth; the ghostly laughter of the Witches; horses’ hooves; bells; and, quite often, eerie and haunting melodies.
The Three Witches (Tori Boutin, Maddie Belknap, and Carol Spring) set the tone. At times they taunt Macbeth and seem to regard him as a figure of fun; at other times they equivocate with solemn certainty.
Lady Macbeth (Stephanie Wilson) is seductive and manipulative, until her emotions overwhelm her. Macbeth (James Finley), very much in love with his wife, is full of doubt and hesitation at first, but ultimately ruthless. Their marriage, it seems, has failed; she has fallen out of love with him, and he has become utterly dominated by her. Both deliver fine performances.
The supporting actors are all highly skilled. Duncan (Jared Swain) is jovial and kind, although exceptionally naive. Banquo (Ryan Sellers) is well-intentioned but sophisticated enough to suspect Macbeth. Macduff is played by an accomplished actress, Bess Kaye, and her work is first-rate. However, although I generally applaud women being cast in men’s roles, due to the unique nature of the part, I think a male would have been a better choice in this case. Carol Spring is a sharp-witted Lady Macduff, and Malcolm (Jack Schmidt) and Donalbain (Rachel Manu) are believable and sympathetic.
Two actors deserve special credit for versatility: Director Dwyer essays the Thane of Ross, and Ben Fisler is the Porter, Siward, and Murderer 1. The Ensemble—Maddie Belknap, Jared Swain, Ryan Sellers, Jack Schmidt, and Rachel Manu—all give their best, and are beautifully integrated into the action.
Due to time constraints, some lines and scenes are missing, for example Macbeth’s “supernatural soliciting” speech. Still, Director Chris Dwyer and Co-Director Brad Smith are to be congratulated for crafting a Macbeth of such high quality in difficult circumstances. Sound Advisor is Ben Fan, Music Director is Tori Boutin, and Executive Producer is Christel Stevens.
This production is an excellent introduction to the play. And the determination and talent of the artists is undeniable. Macbeth: A Radio Drama is not to be missed.
Running Time: 70 minutes.
Ben Fisher – Porter, Lennox, First Murderer
Bess Kaye – Macduff
Carol Spring – Witch 3, Lady Macduff, Gentlewoman, Musician
Christopher Dwyer – Ross
Jack Schmitt – Malcolm, Second Murderer
James Finley – Macbeth
Jared Michael Swain – Duncan, Doctor
Madeline Belknap – Witch 2, Son, Musician
Rachel Manu – Fleance, Donalbain, Ensemble
Ryan Sellers – Banquo
Stephanie Wilson – Lady Macbeth
Tori Boutin – First Witch, Musician
Alan Ernstein – Montpelier Arts Center Technical Director and Booth Master
Briana Manente – Production Stage Manager
Christel Stevens – Producer
Christopher Dwyer – Artistic Director
Kirk Walterick – Recording Engineer
Mac Owens – Sound Designer and Audio Engineer
Tori Boutin – Composer and Music Director