Many of Shakespeare’s most famous characters are remembered for a single trait: Romeo as lover, Richard III as tyrant, Lady Macbeth as evil manipulator. So one of the pleasures of revisiting these stories, and particularly in seeing them performed, is the experience of watching these characters move past these labels to emerge in full form as human beings, with all their contradictions and complexity.
This week in Juneau, Theatre in the Rough’s Katie Jensen will bring that complexity to Lady Macbeth, while Aaron Elmore will do the same for Macbeth. Jensen and Elmore, founders of Theatre in the Rough, joined by a cast of 10 more actors, will present “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” opening Friday at McPhetres Hall. It will be the first time the company, known for their Shakespeare, has produced the work.
Macbeth is a dark play — lots of blood is spilled over the course of five acts, some of which Lady Macbeth famously tries to wash off her hands in Act V — but for Elmore, viewing it as a story about evil is much less rewarding than viewing it as a story about human beings, interacting and influencing one another, and making choices based on what is in front of them at the time.
“It's certainly a total mistake on anyone’s part to approach a character in such a black and white, one-sided way,” he said. ‘There are always ways to look at these people as people, as flawed and as broken as they may be,” he said. “There’s certainly got to be some reason why they did this and why they started that way, if you look for that. You have to look for these things in the text.”
Most are familiar with the story. After being told by three witches that he will soon be king of Scotland, Macbeth, following the strong advice of his wife, murders King Duncan in his bed and takes the throne. But he isn’t satisfied and, feeling his position threatened by a close friend (in response to another of the witches’ prophecies), he decides he must kill again, and then again. Lady Macbeth, gung-ho for Duncan’s murder, pulls back from the continuing violence.
“She’s on board with the whole idea of getting rid of Duncan and making her guy king — and her being queen .... but then once they’re on top of the world, they’re on top of the world. Her attitude is let’s enjoy this while we’ve got it.”
But Macbeth can’t stop, and by Act V, Lady Macbeth, overcome with guilt and horror at the direction her husband is taking, descends into madness.
In approaching Macbeth’s motivations, Elmore said he avoiding simplistic interpretations.
“Is he doing this as a reaction to outside forces, in which case he’s just kind of a victim? Well, that’s not very complicated. Or is he just an evil guy all the way from the beginning, so he’s just sort of living out his nature? Well, that’s not very complicated either. For Shakespeare and for any good storyteller the question is, here’s the guy, this is what he was told, this is what he did, this is what happened as a result. You figure out what you ought to be doing. And I think that’s more where we started heading with this production.”
The play contains some of the most famous lines ever written, including Lady Macbeth’s “unsex me here” speech in Act I and Macbeth’s “sound and fury” speech in Act V, to name just two. The company has had great fun working through the script, Elmore said, and in bringing out elements that often get overlooked, or revisioning characters — such as King Duncan — that are typically downplayed or stereotyped.
Elmore is billed as the director of the play, but said it would be more accurate to say that he and Jensen were co-directors.
“Its broad strokes may have been my intentionality but the fineness of it, what’s really going to make it sing, I have to lay at Katie’s feet in a big way.”
The play has some great fight scenes, including one battle scene they decided should be done in slow motion. It also showcases costumes made by Elmore — fur and leather and sparkling gold — and simple props, including an elegant wood table and benches made by cast member Phil Schempf.
Asked to sum it up, Elmore said. “It’s a great romp and it’s a wonderful piece to do and a fantastic thing to watch. Its got big giant characters involved in the most perilous and marvelous situations you could ask for, and they’re fighting like crazy... And then at the heart of the whole thing is this amazing relationship between these two people.”
Macbeth features 12 actors, some of whom play more than one role. In addition to Elmore as Macbeth and Jensen as Lady Macbeth, the cast includes Maria Gladziszewski, Becky Orford and Natalia Spengler as the witches, Peter Freer as Duncan, Ariana Orford as Malcolm, Fisher Stevens as Banquo, Phil Schempf as Ross, Hunter Davis as Lenox, Grady Wright as Macduff, and young Ivy Smith making a Theatre in the Rough debut as Fleance.
Opening night for Macbeth is Friday, Oct. 26, at 7:30 p.m at McPhetres Hall, on the ground floor of Holy Trinity Church downtown. A free preview performance will be offered tonight at the same time. Shows continue on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays through Nov. 17, with two Sunday matinees on Nov. 11 and 18. Tickets are $20 in advance and are available at Hearthside, the JACC, or $22 at the door . A pay-as-you-will performance is scheduled for Nov. 1; the audience is encouraged to bring a nonperishable item of food for donation on that night.
For more information, visit www.theatreintherough.org.