‘Macbeth’ as psychological thriller: Actors Workshop production takes audience inside Macbeth’s journey
Most of us know the story of Macbeth: Ambitious Scottish war hero heeds the prophecy of witches, and the urging of his wife, assassinates the king in cold blood and unravels in spectacular fashion.
“We all know how it’s going to come out,” says Melissa Lourie, who’s directing the Middlebury Actors Workshop production of Shakespeare’s tragedy, which opens at Town Hall Theater next Thursday, Oct. 20. “So, what’s going to keep us on the edge of our seats?”
Getting inside Macbeth’s head, Lourie says. Which is why she decided to approach the play as a psychological thriller.
“Back in Shakespeare’s day, killing kings to get power was commonplace,” she says. “Everybody did it. So it’s interesting that Shakespeare suddenly decides to take that act and dissect it on a psychological, moral level, to see what it does to people.”
Lourie had long considered directing Macbeth, but she needed the right lead. “I would never dream of doing this play without a very, very competent actor in the lead role; it would just be a waste of time,” she says.
Enter Craig Maravich. The Monkton resident has been a professional actor and educator for 15 years, mostly in New York City. But in 2008, Maravich started working with Vermont Stage Company, where he did a play with Lourie. Then he became a member of the Breadloaf Acting Ensemble. Maravich and his wife started spending summers in Vermont.
Early this year, Maravich and his wife, Sarah, who had begun working for the Burlington School Food Project, decided to relocate full-time to Vermont. “I really wanted to be an actor in a specific community, and I consider Vermont my chosen home,” he says. “Theater gives us an opportunity to bring people together and have this shared experience. It’s important to me that I do that in a place where I live, in a place that I care about, a place that I teach in.”
When Lourie heard Maravich was available, she leapt at the chance to cast him as Macbeth. “There’s always the challenge of trying to create professional level theater in a state where you have very few professional actors,” she admits. Fortunately, she also scored with Burlington’s Chris Caswell as Lady Macbeth.
Maravich notes that Macbeth is having a bit of a moment right now. The Opera Company of Middlebury performed it at Town Hall Theater earlier this year; Northern Stage is currently presenting it in White River Junction; and theater companies around the country are following suit.
Why now? It could be that this year marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. But it could also be that the tragedy brings up themes that are particularly apt in an election year. “So much in this play is about ambition and politics,” Maravich says. “The moral struggle within the play — where the moral center is and how that shifts so quickly — that speaks to this world that we’re in right now.”
Lourie says she isn’t trying to make “a grand political statement.” She simply loves the story. “I love playing with the supernatural elements. I love finding out what this character Macbeth is like, and why he does this thing. Because, as we find out, he’s a thoughtful, sensitive person.”
Sure, he murders a king, but he’s “immediately aware of violating right and wrong, he immediately gets that what goes around comes around. And yet he does it anyway, and that’s what’s so fascinating to me,” Lourie says.
Lourie and Maravich have had fun exploring his motives and thought process together. “What happens when you make a decision that is against your nature as a human being?” wonders Maravich. “How do you grapple with the person you are now? And can you go back?”
MAW has stripped the play down to a trim 90 minutes, and the action takes place on a minimal set in an undefined time period.
“We do have swords, but we’re not setting it in any particular time,” says Lourie. It’s set in a world that seems to blend 19th century Scotland with more modern cultures. “It’s rough, it’s somewhat brutal, it’s Northern. Because it’s primarily a landscape of the mind, I don’t think it matters much that we’re in a particular period.”
Lourie has favored minimalist sets for Shakespeare since she cofounded the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival in Cold Spring, N.Y., earlier in her career. “We performed outside on the dirt under a tent,” she says. “But that’s very close to the way Shakespeare was originally performed. They didn’t have a lot of stuff.”
In addition to the Town Hall Theater production, which runs through Oct. 23, MAW will take the show to the Paramount Theater in Rutland on Oct. 27 and the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts in Burlington on Nov. 1. They will also present student matinees — one at THT on Oct. 26 and one at the Flynn on Nov. 1. Maravich and other actors will also lead workshops at Middlebury and Burlington schools.
Lourie says the story is as relevant for students now as it has ever been. “It’s important to look very closely at human ambition and its consequences,” she says. “Look around the world and you see people ruthlessly seizing power. Then they shut down the press and kill people and silence opposition. It’s a story that’s happening all the time.”
THE KING’S SONS: Theo Wells-Spackman, left, as Donalbain, Paul Schnabel, center, as Duncan, and Orlando Whitcomb-Worden, right, as Malcolm rehearse a scene from act 1.
MACBETH, RIGHT, PREPARES for battle as the Scottish thanes and allies, in the background, rise in revolt.