She that is not of woman born; or, WYW’s “Macbeth”

In sixteenth-century England, to go to the theatre was in essence to attend a dress rehearsal for the monarch, Queen Elizabeth I. To see a play by Shakespeare was ostensibly getting to see a play that might in fact go before her—getting to share in the same political or identity question that the leaders of the land might also find engaging. All the most interesting then that William Shakespeare’s Macbeth was one of the first plays likely performed for the new monarch, King James I of England and VI of Scotland, in a new century. Likely composed in the last year of Elizabeth’s life, the play overtly grapples with questions of governance, gender, and the performance of these identities within the eager public sphere. It is just this confluence of performed and projected identities that the What You Will Shakespeare Company’s (WYW) production of Macbeth interrogates this weekend only at the University Place Christian Church.

The basement of this building is huge, with a small proscenium stage on one end and a “discovery space” entranceway with three steps and railings on the other. Typically WYW productions here block their performances around this discovery space, using it as the primary entranceway and vanishing point for spectators. This is the first time I’ve seen them design the set with these two architectural elements set stage-left and -right of the main playing space, which was demarcated by two rows of chairs facing opposite one another and the action taking place in-between. It is a smart choice for a number of reasons: as a playgoer you watch the reactions of your fellow attendees directly across from you as much as the play action, you are made aware of one’s own performance as an audience member, and you are implicated in the projecting onto Macbeth the murderous action you want or at least expect him to take. ‘Cause who doesn’t know the Scottish play? But in this arrangement, we as playgoers as much as the characters within the fiction of the play are responsible for Macbeth’s descent. The arrangement thus elegantly posits the question: to what extent is Macbeth’s community implicated in the massacre of Scotland’s elite order?

And certainly there is something greatly amiss in Scotland beyond the Macbeths’ vaulting ambition. The opening scene of the play is of Macbeth (Tom Fornander) returning from a battle, having killed a supposed traitor we know not why. Several insertions of (what I believe are) Wiccan prayers to the Mother Goddess were included throughout, including just before this traditional opening scene. Here the witches (John Clishem, Kim Gasiciel, Celia Mueller) are every(wo)men, appealing to a mother goddess to “heal” them and their nation. This added rhetoric of healing positions the witches as representations of a kind of universal corrective power, a systemic resolving force emanating from nature’s constant move toward equilibrium. In this light the witches become sympathetic, desiring only an end to death, violence, and destruction that the elite Scottish regime seems to leave in its wake. Hecate is remade metaphorically into Mother Nature. The witches also double as the murderers, solving some of the play’s gaps. One of the witches (Celia Mueller) in her mannerisms routinely resists the dirty work they have to do, and the opening story about the drowned sailor is one of woe to which her companions try to cheer her. The mysterious third murderer of Banquo (Matthew Marquez) seems to appear out of nowhere in the text; I’ve seen some versions putting Macbeth or his wife in this role. Here, it is simply the resistant witch, finally peer-pressured into the killing, but at the murder of Macduff’s children, is horrified and filled the basement with shrieks. In being willing to see the witches as forces of order rather than chaos, the production solves seeming staging incongruities neatly.

The most significant intervention of the production, however, is the approach to gender in the casting choices. For a student troupe perhaps more than any other kind do you have to work with the bodies you’ve got. Thankfully, since all of Shakespeare’s players were men and expected to regularly play cross-gendered parts, girls playing boys never seems odd in these productions. What may have been bourne out of necessity the production decided to take seriously, seemingly because the play is overtly invested in whether or not “are you a man.” Certainly the witches and their added mother goddess rhetoric foregrounds this, but a number of other textual substitutions we made. I noted at least two in which Lady Macbeth refers to a dead or lost daughter, in one case an overt substitution for “father.”

Macduff (Tori Stukins) is also intentionally transgendered, enriching her character development at the end of act four. When she discovers her husband and children (children she has actually carried herself) have been murdered, Malcolm (Clayton Gentilcore) implores that Macduff hold her tears and “dispute it like a man.” MacDuff responded:

I shall do so;
But I must also feel it as a man…
Oh, I could play the woman with mine eyes
And braggart with my tongue! But, gentle heavens,
Cut short all intermission; front to front
Bring thou this fiend of Scotland and myself;
Within my sword’s length set him; if he ‘scape,
Heaven forgive him too!

To which all the sleepy, sociopathic, Alan Rickman-esque Malcolm can say to her is, “This tune goes manly.” It is a brilliant turn to make Macbeth’s murderer not of woman born but also a woman, no matter how uncomfortable it seems for her to carry his head and crown back to Malcolm in order to re-establish a male (rather than female) succession.

The production is incredibly consistent in these small details when it approaches how both gender identities are constructed and the ways in which Macbeth himself seems a green-screen, adopting whichever identity he is given that seems to stick best. The only snag in the show is the powerhouse herself, Lady Macbeth, played by Megan Scharlau. I hesitate to say it, but Scharlau may simply be too talented for her own good. As I have mentioned previously, she has a strong sense of timing in terms of entrances and dialogue that interiorizes her character. In her first major “unsex me” speech at the end of act one, she paces calmly yet with intention as she puts on makeup, reinforcing her performed gender identity rather than unravelling in. That “come thick night” is timed to her application of a brown pencil to her eyebrows is rather brilliant; whether Scharlau or director Orion Lovell’s idea, the simple choice to reinforce rather than undermine her gendered identity was powerful. What’s more, she isn’t overbearing: Scharlau knows how to hold still and listen as a character, and twice the fact that Macbeth gives her a blade rather than her taking it from him carves out space for her character to be sympathetic. Best was her continued presence in the playing space between her sleep-walking scene and her death. She is everpresent over the intervening action, crumbling psychologically as Macbeth’s political aspirations do the same. Her understated distress accrued empathy with her extended time on the stage rather than through the shock-and-awe of spectacular madness.

This is not to say that there weren’t a few hiccups, but these were mostly on account of the lights being unreliable. Truth be told, the cast didn’t miss a beat the numerous times the lights dropped unintentionally—the intentional blackouts were well-chosen when they worked. But then again, it is the Scottish play, the cursed play whose action after the first scene takes place almost entirely at night anyway. That, and the tornadoes touching down across southern Illinois just at the time the dress rehearsal started made it a rather perfect night be on Macbeth’s long, darkened heath. Part of me hopes that when you go either tonight or tomorrow night—because dear reader, you should most definitely see this Macbeth—that it storms for you, too.

WYW’s “Complete Works” a faithful abridgment

[Blackout. A pretentious, heavy-metal version of ‘Greensleeves’ crashes through the sound system. At its conclusion, lights come up to reveal JESS, in Shakespearean attire and high-top sneakers. JESS consults the book, realizes it’s upside down, turns it over, flips a page, and reads.]




Before the weekend is up I wanted to say a few works about the What You Will (WYW) Shakespeare Company’s production of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), now playing at the University Place Christian Church on the corner of Wright and Springfield in Urbana, Illinois. Part of the fun of seeing these entirely student-run productions is the creativity they bring to the stagings, and especially how that creativity gets meted out interpreting these plays on a very limited budget. Circumscribed by a collegiate audience and atmosphere, one of my favorite offerings has been their version of As You Like It, which openly embraced campus life to give the play exigency. But the now ubiquitous Complete Works (Abridged) is another matter altogether. With a script that already plays fast and loose with the status of Shakespeare in popular culture, already has the tongue-in-cheek built in, I wondered how the troupe would find ways to bring their style to bear.

While the group is usually very smart about capitalizing cleverly on costume choices and doubling, making the most of careful selection, here they stuck to the script. As suggested by the quoted stage directions above, the group kept things simple and plastic: high-tops, hoodies, and quasi-Ren faire blouses and vests. In this way the students’ abilities as actors were underscored, not allowed to hide behind costume and mise-en-scene. Most notable were veterans Matthew James Marquez and Megan Scharlau. Marquez capitalized on his height and expressive features to toy with expectations of cross-dressing in the period, as well as the levels of disgust different cultures are willing to tolerate in the name of humor. (This is to say much vomiting was had.) Sharlau, on the other hand, has a knack for comedic timing, which productively poked at the motivational holes behind leading tragic characters like Hamlet. (She seemed to revel most in the Seussian Green Eggs and Ham references.) Also notable were Kevin Gomez as an expression of our too-willing dependence on the Internet, and Orion Lovell making sure the fourth wall never remained up for long.

The other thing about the text of this particular play that makes it well-suited for students are the moments in it aimed at audience participation. The final Ophelia-psychology scene is perhaps most famous (see what I mean below) for inculcating the audience, but there are many other moments in the play that provide the actors similar opportunities. At the Friday opening performance there were many gestures to this, but the performers primarily targeted friends or members of the troupe, including using at least one plant for the “Get Thee To A Nunnery” scene. While of course putting on a play is challenge enough, with so many veterans in the cast I hoped the group would try to really tackle getting strangers in on their game. It is my hope that WYW’s spring productions take up this particular challenge as they re-envision these plays. Otherwise, the performance was all fun, with humour well delivered all the while tackling real questions of canon and cultural prestige in the process.

  • The What You Will Shakespeare Company‘s production of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) plays at the University Place Christian Church 14-15 November at 8:00pm.