| Is This A Dagger? - 12/13/07
I had planned to meet Aaron at 11 for a script cutting/adjustment session, but got a phone message saying
he had a blinding headache and was going to his gym. So I lunched alone at the hotel dining room
(white tablecloths and chandeliers, view of the mouth of the Navesink River) on herbed chicken.
Then I drove to the theater through freezing rain, to see, for the first time, Macbeth hallucinate
his dagger. * * *
The trick was set up backstage left; most of the stage is covered with the huge angular flooring “tiles”
for the “Macbeth” set, with two women busily painting the undercoat on them. In the auditorium Karin our
sound designer was setting up for a test.
Angie the petite, dark-haired assistant stage manager and I set up the special lighting and the gorgeous
wrought-steel gothic mirror that frame the trick. We tested the way the image looked.
Here was the first trick I conceived for the show, the one on which all the others were modeled,
the breakthrough idea. And now it was before me, more beautiful than I had imagined, a dagger,
floating, sparkling, spinning in the airy darkness. A thought brought to life, immaculately,
framed by twisted steel.
Ian Peakes (Macbeth) arrived to rehearse with me. He was a little late because he got lost
on the roads in the bad weather. But we put in a solid half-hour, working to choreograph
where he would stand and how he would handle this. As an actor he’s so used to imagining
stuff like this, it seemed very strange to him to see an unreal thing for real. So at first he
worked a bit too hard. Then I asked him to address what he was really seeing as coldly as he could,
as a purely intellectual experience, not passionate -- just a man trying to figure out what, exactly,
he was looking at. Shivers ran down my spine. Ian is such a charismatic presence that when he simply
thinks and calculates, the effect is electrifying.
We have some issues with the appearance of blood on the blade, and lots of tedious concerns with the
precision required to execute this all perfectly, but I have great confidence in this part of the show.
Next I met with Karin the sound designer to decide whether or not we want to amplify or treat
the Weird Sisters’ voices. I was completely against this. I think theater should feel like
flesh and blood. Purity, purity, purity. But Aaron had asked me at least to listen to the options.
Man, the effects sounded good. So good. So scary. I pictured an acoustic Macbeth talking to electronic
Sisters and asked myself whether Shakespeare would have used the technology. Well, hell, of course he would.
So much for purity.
* * *
Quinn, the special prop maker wanted to show me the progress of the cauldron, and I trudged through
the sleet to visit her at the scene shop. Tech director Andrew Martini, and Dan Hodge, the Hooded Hooker
Slut Sister tagged along. Dan the designer had measured one of our apparitions the night before,
and realized the cauldron could go smaller (hence more amazing) than we had anticipated. Quinn turned
off her blasting boom box and showed me what she’d built; she was working from the original dimensions
but fortunately had not gotten too far along; so I sketched out a revised verion to offer to Dan.
Maybe somebody in some art form bursts forth with a perfect idea and inspiration in the first draft.
In magic it never happens. In a book, you can write “Mary Poppins opens her umbrella and flies,” and
everybody buys it. In magic she has to do it (probably through a hoop, and you can always see the wired.)
* * *
Back to backstage, struggling to make the blood appear on the phantom knife fast enough to be alarming.
Frustration was setting in. I needed food.
* * *
I arrived at the rehearsal hall with assistant director Jeremy about five o’clock and ate my gourmet-supermarket
carrot ginger soup and herbed turkey breast at a temporarily vacant seat at the stage manager’s table.
Aaron’s headache had been banished by a good massage and he looked bright-eyed.
* * *
Now a great vignette.
We don’t want the actors dressed in period attire, but we also don’t want to the actors to be dressed
in modern American business suits while talking about Scotland and kings. So what do we do to put the show
in a world close enough that we connect with it, but remote enough to fit the language?
The wild Irish lass costume designer Devon suggested putting our men in high-fashion man-skirts
of rough wools and weaves, with rugged thermal shirts. It’s a huge, crazy choice. It makes me nervous
and that makes me happy. We’ve broken every other rule (e.g. casting great comic actors for our tragic roles),
so why not put the most stage combat I’ve ever seen on men with high hemlines?
But since the butch skirts are still being built, and the guys need to learn to slaughter each other
in facsimiles of the costumes, somebody went to the mall and bought rehearsal clothes from the plus-size
ladies’ clothing store.
So I walk in on this scene: eight athletic men in two simultaneous scenes of grunting, bashing, stabbing
combat – all wearing flowered skirts.
* * *
Next up was the Porter scene. This is a famously tricky part of the play.
After the shattering suspense of the aftermath of the murder, where Mr. & Mrs. Macbeth, covered with blood,
and incoherent with fear and guilt, suddenly hear somebody knocking relentlessly at the front door and sneak
off to try and get cleaned up before they get caught. This scene builds so intensely, well, it leaves
Shakespeare no way to escalate.
His solution is to do a comedy scene that completely busts out of the play, giving the audience a chance
to unclench their stomachs with a laugh, before starting the rising tension again.
So Shakespeare brings on the Macbeths’ security guard, the Porter, a slacker who has been up all
night boozing and is blind hung over. While the knocking continues relentlessly, he goes to answer
the door, but dawdles on the way by pretending he’s doorman in Hell.
Great idea, sure. But comedy – especially topical comedy – tends not to age well. Shakespeare wrote
jokes that would hit on topics that were current in his day. Gunpowder plot jokes and equivocation gags
were a hoot to 1605 Londoners. But very hard to make play for today. So generally, the Porter scene gets
one or two laughs on belches or farts, and then pretty much fizzles.
Aaron has a secret weapon on this show, Eric Hissom, a lead actor playing four character roles.
Aaron assigned Eric to make this scene funny, even if that meant writing new jokes. It’s hard
to judge comedy in a rehearsal hall with no audience, but Eric got at least four full laughs out of me,
which has to be some kind of record.
* * *
Aaron doesn’t much look forward to staging huge scenes with a zillion actors. I think he finds them more
like double-crostic puzzles than directing challenges. The final scene of the day was one of these:
the discovery of King Duncan’s dead body and the waking of the whole Macbeth household. During
this scene the porter’s comedy quickly turns a corner back into suspense, more murders, and heavy drama.
The cast sat in folding chairs and read the scene for clarity. Aaron and I had cut the scene, removing
some very dense and embroidered text.
But the actors hadn’t received our changes; they were reading it uncut. And their performance was amazing.
Speeches that seemed wordy on the page flew by and the richness of the language was a pleasure, not a burden.
The images that we thought would be a strain were delicious: like chocolates filled with tangy surprises.
Suddenly we erased a lot of cut marks in our notes.
And that was my most vivid moment of the day. Specifically, hearing Cody Nickell, who’s playing Macduff,
take a filigreed, velvet-upholstered passage about the horror of finding the King’s corpse and make me love it.
I’ve said it before and will say it again: A script is like a recipe. Unless you’re a chef, don’t expect
to know how a dish tastes from reading the ingredients. If you’re not Seiji Ozawa, don’t stare at
an score and expect to hear the symphony. And don’t judge Shakespeare by reading him in a book.
* * *
I just got a piece of email from the stage manager. She asks if I’ll bring something with me to the rehearsal. In response I wrote:
“Sure. The severed hand is in my car. It’s cold tonight, so I expect it will keep.”