In this case, Shakespeare, the play’s not everything. The We Players, whose motto is to present “site-specific performance events that transform public spaces into realms of participatory theater,” present yet another maxim: “Location, location, location.”
Granted, first choice for a production of the Scottish Play might be in Scotland, perhaps on Dunsinane Hill, although the two forts at this point are in ruins. On a voluntary budget and a two weekend run with pass-the-hat post-show price of admission complete with tea and cookies, it’s hard to believe the We Players would perform at arguably the second best place on earth (or, at least, the first best in the San Francisco Bay Area). Artistic Director Ava Roy began talks with the U.S. National Parks Service in November 2007 about staging a production of Macbeth inside the brick-and-mortar Civil War era fort at San Francisco’s Fort Point. Constructed between 1853 and 1861 in an effort to secure the San Francisco Bay from an anticipated attack that never came, the fort finally and after much effort became a National Historic Site in 1970, opening its doors to the public, offering its amazing historic value and imposing architectural design of three casemated tiers and a top barbette tier seated just below the south entrance to the Golden Gate Bridge.
This three hour production, under the direction of Ava Roy, Cara DeFabio, and Randall Cohn, is led by three guides (Jack Halton, Nathan Harper, and our mighty enthusiastic, red-haired, blue-eyed guide, Kate McKnightly). The guides also take on the roles of Lennox, Nurse and Doctor simultaneously while leading their sometimes separate groups of thirty-five, give or take, through the Fort. So how does this all work? I deserve applause if I can put it into words. All patrons begin the show together, entering the fort through the steel doors and into the cold and blustery ground floor arena. The first few scenes are performed for the group, and then, under the direction of our respective guides, we break off and up/down/around/through one of the multiple pathways in this space for one of three possible adaptations of the next scene. A total of nine players take on all the roles in the play, each actor playing and exchanging each and every part at some point (aside from the witches’ roles which remain static). This break off/reconvene method occurs throughout the production in a surprisingly structured and workable manner, and at times, when, say, each group needs to convene in a particular room for a scene, but must do so separately for the sake of space, each of the three groups will see a different scene, granted slightly out of Shakespeare’s order, and rotate till we’ve all seen what we need to see and are ready to reconvene again.
This is an interactive and by all means active show. There are no chairs; there’s no need, as the audience moves ‘round the fort just as much as the actors do. There’s also not much insofar as set design, aside from a banquet table for Banquo’s Ghost and a heath in the center of the grounds, piled high with bones and beans, bricks and branches—the latter becoming that ever so moving scene of Birnam Wood. These players use and work with their already established environment, monopolizing on its design that seems to have been made for this show.
Sara Nelson’s costume design is Civil War military dress, and includes color-coded sashes (green for Macbeth, blue for Banquo, etc.) in a successful, although likely unnecessary attempt to avert confusion when, say, we’re on our third actor playing Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, or another. Lady Macbeth is recognizable by her long skirt and a subtle, yet bold, snapping red fan. The roles are not gender-specific, meaning both male and female actors cover all. There are standouts among the actors. Roy multitasks as Artistic Director, Co-Director, and First Witch. The three sisters (Roy, Cara DeFabio, and Sarah Scharf) work well together, whether looming above the action on the third tier of the fort, or conjuring in a double double toil and tumble moment, offering some interesting acrobatic moves without much trouble, to create a mostly fluid synergy through movement, but it’s Roy who keeps the three in tune. On the occasions when the sisters must vanish as per the scene, their exit is creative and effective, achieved by a silent “poof!” as they toss their sashes into the air before dashing off scene, or later in a simultaneous drop and roll toward the heath, their bodies melding with the mound of debris.
Val Sinkler—at least insofar as my group was concerned—is most memorable in her roles as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, exuding power and pain, passion and lust, deviance and defeat, delivered throughout with the strength and stability of one very fine actor who has mastered the art of quick change.
For Sinkler’s stability, it’s Dhira Rauch who leaves the audience on the edges of their nonexistent seats with her unstable and irrational behavior, and I mean this in a good way. Rauch is the sole portrayer of the Porter, and her delivery is diabolical, vulgar, and vastly entertaining. Her presence, like that of Sinkler’s, is always welcome. Rauch’s scene as Lady Macduff is violent, filled with kicking and screaming, the bloody scene created by red lighting. The same affect is attempted earlier in the production as our guides take us for a questionable viewing of King Duncan’s death chamber. It’s tough to outdo or even come close to Macbeth’s description of this bloody scene that Shakespeare determined to keep offstage, so to reenact it with a walk-by viewing proves somewhat anti-climactic, though a bold directorial move that works to keep the audience an intimate part of the production.
Lighting is for the most part natural, aside from some small bulbs lining the spiral staircases for the sake of one’s life. As the night embraces this vast stage, natural lighting lacks in some of the chambers and leaves some scenes in the dark. Roy explained that the troupe was originally to have civil war lanterns in the production, but for some reason or another, the lanterns never came through. As the sun went down and the winds blew an even colder air on this performance, scenes within the many chambers were welcomed, but for want of light, not all were fully realized.
There’s so much to say about this production. There’s a three-piece civil war band trumpeting a bugle, a bagpipe, and timpani—an instrument that has evolved from ceremonial and military drum to orchestral over the past nine-hundred years. As the audience dashes as fast as they can up the spiraling staircases and to the third tier of the fort for Macbeth’s right out of the movies fight to his death, with Macbeth and Macduff seen dueling in far away silhouette against the backdrop of a violent San Francisco Sky, the timpani beats wildly in competition with the waves crashing below and the cars thundering above, keeping the momentum as we travel from scene to scene. This production stages an interactive banquet scene, setting up a forty foot table within the fort while the audience is busy watching another scene elsewhere, the table holding a surprising feast for audience and actors alike, feasting taking place as Sinkler’s Macbeth raves over Banquo’s ghost. In another behind the scenes attempt, the audience of spectators is led through a line of several chambers posing as rooms within the Macbeth household, each room oozing the insanity that infects Lady Macbeth. In chamber one, a witch counts beans. Chamber two sweeps feathers. Chamber three is Lady Macbeth’s dressing chamber, holding scattered fans and intimates, leading to the next chamber holding the Lady, herself, obviously distraught and tormented, though silent. The final chamber carries the low, hollow, and sometimes grumbling howl of a prayer bowl, the circular motion used to create this tone reminiscent of the witches’ conjuring in previous scenes. This asylum sort of feel works well with the notion of personalities splitting in this production, be they split by the literal fact that many actors play each part, or during the scene in which a slew of Lady Macbeths appear above the audience in an eerie moment of hand rubbing and spots that are damned.
And there’s so much more. So much more that really should be seen by Bay Area audiences, but alas, for the last eight years Ava Roy has been committed to providing accessible (although not ADA in this case), free theatre to the community with the help of donors and the generosity of volunteer actors and conceivers. This production of Macbeth runs for two weekends only, and each showing is completely booked—two weeks not because of desire to and for the show to go on, but two weeks because that’s when the funds run out. My advice to Roy: Charge. You should not only because you can—because this show is just that exciting—but because more people need to know who you are and what you do. A show like this could run open and book throughout.