| My “Opening Night" - 1/18/08
I arrived at the theater about 10:30 in hopes of getting some prep done on Lady Macbeth’s blood problems
before I needed to do an interview with the Washington Post. * * *
During her nightmare, we wanted Lady Macbeth to start pristine in a pale off-white nightdress, and progress
to being completely drenched in nightmare blood. Blood, in all its forms, is a hard thing to do magic with.
To enjoy blood, you must see it on something. And if it’s off what should be displaying it, blood becomes
a terrible hazard for slipping and falling. Considering that our stage is used for intense combat shortly
after Lady Macbeth has her dream, this scene requires extreme precision of application.
I should not say too much more, except that getting a massive coverage of blood in the middle of
the stage without spilling a drop is no small feat. Matt and Angie and I solved it by extensive
experimentation with dilutions and color samples, and a timely visit by Matt to The Home Depot.
And, finally, today, it worked. We turned a huge white fabric sample red and wet, and anticipate
this will work equally well for the golden skin and silken nightgown of Mrs. M.
Afterwards, I asked Thom how his dagger illumination was progressing. He said, “I learned a lot about
parabolic reflection overnight. Come on out and take a look.”
He led me to the scene shop. There Duane and Big Wayne were shaping sheet metal and wires to make the
dagger lighting instrument Thom had designed overnight. They had the focused look of a stealth-demolition
team right before the big explosion.
At 11:30, I went to the Founders’ Room in the theater to have lunch with Peter Marks of the Washington
Post. I liked him immediately: Peter took handwritten notes in a steno pad, rather than just tape
recording the interview. That’s an old-school style touch you see only in classy pros. He didn’t ask
a single “so, how did you and Penn meet?” question; instead we had a conversation that felt more
like brainstorming with the “Macbeth” design team than an exhibition for a member of the press.
The sandwiches seemed several degrees above Wawa, too.
Then I went back into the theater, to do the final setup for Lady M’s blood. We reformulated some of
her hand blood so that it oozes and smears and with better control.
Moments before 1 p.m. (when the Lady M. rehearsal was to start), Kenny Wollesen came up to me and said,
“Do you have a second? For me to show you something?” I didn’t, but it was Kenny and when he’s excited,
there is always time. Kenny led me outside the theater to a black panel truck. He threw open the doors.
“I can’t believe I found this. It was on the street across from my apartment. When you hit it with
a nine-pound hammer, we get the knock I’ve been looking for since the beginning.”
In the truck was the huge, heavy soundboard of a grand piano with the strings stretched across it.
Kenny hit it with his hammer. I heard the terrifying, sound of a distant knocking, re-echoed
in the strings of the piano. “I couldn’t believe it. I looked across the street this morning
and here this was in the trash.” Kenny said. The Muses take care of their own. “Maybe we
should put this in for tomorrow,”
I said. “We don’t want to surprise them in performance on an opening night.”
Kate (Lady M.) was backstage by the time I got back. I set her up and let her work her hand-blood
production over a sink with the more viscous gore until she felt confident. So many tiny things matter.
This part of the trick must be done in profile, so that the bloody dress is not behind the new blood
(thus camouflaging and upstaging it). Then we went onstage and continued to work. Every bit of
choreography I suggested (we need Kate to turn at various precise moments to allow the audience
to absorb each new bloodstain), Kate found ways to internalize and motivate. Kate never moves mechanically
– it all comes from the inside, from her imagination and emotion. So we fine-tuned her moves in dramatic
terms, “Can you dream Macbeth a little more stage left, so that the audience can register the stain on
your thigh?” Aaron was in the house as well and (as you know from earlier posts) has an incredible
knack for motivating movement, so this went very swiftly and well.
[There are skills that just come inborn. Moving actors is Aaron’s. Mine is looking at a bowl
of food just taken from the dinner table and recognizing the exact size of Tupperware container
to use to store the leftovers.]
I checked backstage. Duane and Wayne had started installing Thom’s dagger light.
The afternoon is a blur. Aaron and I alternated main stage rehearsals, with Aaron tightening
and clarifying scenes, restaging with the newly-made chair for Malcolm, and working on acting issues;
while I dealt with Sisters and gore. There are still smoke and light concerns unresolved, but now
we’re in the realm of nuance, not survival. Cody Nickell (Macduff) and Ian Peakes (Macbeth) worked
for 30 minutes to get one final gut-slash (the one that kills Macbeth) sufficiently gory and horrifying.
They got it.
At the end of the afternoon, Aaron assembled the cast on stage and gave them a reminder to have fun
with the language and keep everything super-clear. He invited me to say something.
I was too choked up to say anything coherent. I just told the cast what a joy it was to see something
I’d dreamed of so long exceed my hopes.
Then Cody said he had a presentation to make. He gave Aaron and me each, on behalf of the cast,
a photo album. On the black cover leaf, in silver, was the title: “MACBETH 2008 – They have blood
And inside was a picture of each member of the cast and crew and staff with blood on them.
On their hands, mouths, faces, in the office, shower, on the floor, wearing glasses,
drinking whisky, half-naked…
Wow. Then I remembered Penn’s bouquet and asked Matt to run up to Aaron’s office and bring that down.
I got up and said, “Oh, yeah, and one more thing. Good luck! Macbeth!” And I whistled. Then,
“Altogether now…!” and the whole gang (except Thom, who hid in the wings) joined in, “Good luck!
Macbeth!” and whistled. Everybody burst into applause.
Matt arrived with the peacock feathers and I gave one to everybody. We were ready for the last preview.
I dined with Matt, his wife Rachel, and some of our friends at the Eurasian Eatery, just down
the street, across from the Count Basie Theater. Pretty great place with novel taste combinations
e.g., Macadamia nut snapper.
When I got back to the theater, it was about ten after seven (curtain time at eight). Most of the
cast was already in costume, looking very clean and sharp, and virtually every one was in the midst
of a cell phone conversation with a loved one. I wonder what actors did before cell phones.
From what I’ve read, they drank.
I wished everybody well and dropped Paul (Banquo) a thought about how his “instruments of darkness”
line; Paul has a wonderful, thoughtful depth and is easy to discuss this kind of thing with. I peeked
in on Ian and Cody in their dressing room. They were laughing about the insanely great noises Kenny had
been making by whacking his new instrument with a hammer.
Backstage, Duane and Wayne were on ladders, still adjusting the final placement on Thom’s new dagger light.
This was like one of those Mickey Rooney movies where everybody gets together to put on a show and save
the orphanage, and people are painting the scenery till seconds before the curtain goes up.
Kenny and Rich (the percussionist playing the score) were in the percussion cage. They had managed to
cram the gutted piano against one end wall. The guys ran picks up and down the strings.
I thought: Such great sounds; I’d love to hear them tonight, but we shouldn’t surprise the
actors during a performance.
A performance! Tonight I get to watch a performance from a real seat, like a real patron.
* * *
I went into the lobby and looked outside. In the parking lot the theater had a trailer with four
searchlights sweeping the sky. There was a red carpet leading to the front door.
Beside it a bagpiper in full Scottish regalia was wailing away.
* * *
I took my seat in the auditorium, just behind the founders of the theater, Robert and Joan Rechnitz.
The Two River theater owes its existence to this couple, true patrons of the arts. This is one of
the best designed theaters I’ve ever entered, and the programs put together under Bob and Joan’s auspices
are a smart balance of commerce and art. Bob and Joan looked eager and excited. They’ve seen the show
again and again, in all its various stages from first reading through dress rehearsals and previews.
I hoped they would be pleased with the final product. It would never have come to pass without them.
Richard Frankel, who produced P&T off and on Broadway was sitting with his family in the row in front of me.
To my left was Andrew Martini, production director, who has taken wonderful care of me throughout
this experience. To my right, Devon Painter, costume designer, beaming. Everyone else in the room
was a paying customer, except, perhaps, the reviewer for the New York Times.
Tonight I will take no notes. This may be the last time I get to see the show here in New Jersey.
I want to enjoy what we’ve made.
* * *
Clarity. That’s my first impression. Amazing clarity. Nothing about the story is confusing or muddled.
Laughter. More humor in this production than in most Shakespearean comedies. Eric Hissom is terrific
as the Porter, but there are laughs all the way through, and not just at jokes or gags. We laugh
at the madness of the situation, at Macbeth’s reactions to the bizarreness of his life. There
are laughs as people recognize themselves in the relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth.
There are laughs at Shakespeare’s glorious word choices.
Magic. There are the moments of sheer, raw amazement that one can feel ripple through the crowd.
Laughs and gasps over Banquo’s ghost’s unexpected comings and goings (which we do in a tricky way
that reminds the viewer how vulnerable we all are to misdirection). Gasps at the horrible beauty
of Lady Macbeth’s nightmare. And the magic fits. It doesn’t jump out or feel grafted on. It is,
I believe, exactly what Shakespeare had in mind.
Tragedy. When Macduff, the brave soldier, hears of the death of his children, my breath caught in my throat.
My eyes got teary when Macbeth curls into ball like a hurt child and thinks about the “troops of friends”
he will never have because he’s screwed up his life. I felt a chill when Lady M. walks off into the
darkness on her way to suicide, saying in a small voice, “To bed…to bed…to bed….” And when Macbeth
hears of his wife’s suicide and tells the bitter truth about “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow”
to his teenage page Seyton, well, it was like a stab to the heart.
Wildness. At the final fight, when it’s clear that Macbeth is going to die, and he lays into the fight
with a maniacal laugh, after we’ve watched the hero become a villain, become a terrorist, then suffer
the consequences, plunge to the bottom of despair and come out fighting – well, I’ve never seen a
story more thoroughly thrilling, sophisticated, and now.
So there it was after nearly fifty years of dreaming. Radiant onstage in three dimensions, unpretentious,
funny, scary, amazing, touching and most of all: incandescently clear. Incomparably better than my
Afterwards we saw friends in the lobby. Everybody was kind and complimentary, and I’m grateful.
But even if they had hated it, I would have been happy.
When dreams come true, they require no affirmation.
* * *
The theater held its official opening night party at a fine joint across the street. Nothing too raucous,
just moderately loud music, beverages and elegant snacks served from trays by attractive wait-folk.
I knew how much I loved the cast and crew and staff, but tonight it hit me hard how much they seemed to love me.
I’m a cold fish, you know, in many ways. I have my mother’s bluntness. I believe “the play’s the thing”
and set my sights on getting it right, not keeping my co-creators happy. Of course, I try to stay polite,
and I certainly praise excellence when I see it. But I care, I’m afraid, more about the product than
This has gotten me in trouble often. I’ve lost good colleagues by not being more tactful or respectful.
But here Aaron had established such an atmosphere of camaraderie, and had gathered a team so talented
and no-nonsense and resilient that my monomania was turned into an asset.
I wandered the party. Richard Frankel and his family were there and in particular his wife Kate
(a popular name in this show) seemed sincerely enthralled. Matt (his arm around his wife Rachel)
said, “We did it. We really did it.” Thom was smiling: his dagger light had worked, and the whole
show came alive under his lights. Dan Olmstead, who plays Duncan, told me “you’re really an actor’s
director; you know how to put things in terms of motivation.” I was flattered and puzzled –
I guess some of Aaron rubbed off.
Ian and Cody and Scott Kerns seemed downright merry – I could easily imagine them standing Will a butt of
sack at the Mermaid Tavern after a show at the Globe. Kate Eastwood Norris beamed at me with a bit
of a tear in her eye and said, “You’ll be right here on my shoulder,” and pointed as though to
an imp perched beside her cheek. She hugged me. Everybody hugged me and held on for a long time.
The backstage crew and the tech staff greeted me with a kind of joyful relief; I think they had anticipated
that – coming from the world of stage magic -- I would look down my nose at first-time magic makers;
but instead they saw how blown away I was by how beautifully everything came out.
And Kenny – you recall I’d asked Kenny to wait to try the new sound for the door knock? – well,
Kenny had ignored that direction and put this magnificent new sound into the show and tonight it pulled
the whole score into one world. So Kenny was beaming so brightly, his glasses sparkled like headlights.
I talked and joked and ate cookies with Bob and Joan Rechnitz and the sponsors from Monmouth University.
Bob had wanted to do Shakespeare for several years and said that when Aaron had proposed “Macbeth”
Bob had asked himself, “Why can’t he pick something nice like ‘Midsummer’ instead of horrible
‘Macbeth,’ a grim, gory tragedy?” But Bob listened to our pitch and trusted Aaron and – partnering
up with the Folger folks – had gambled on the most ambitious and expensive production the theater
had ever mounted. So Bob was celebrating. He loved the show, but equally important to the well-being
of his theater, “Macbeth” came in nearly on budget and has already sold better than any show in the
Amidst all of this love-fest, I sneaked off with Aaron for a few moments to discuss a few other
improvements. I can’t stop myself. And, I suspect, this process will go on with the show till
its final closing night in Washington.
The party wound down around 1:30, and Aaron gave me a lift through the rain to my hotel. Several
of the cast had migrated to the hotel bar and I got more long hugs on my way through the lobby.
I’d done most of my packing the night before. So there wasn’t a lot to do, but it took an hour
or two to wind down. Two hours later, my alarm went off. It was no accident. My plane for Vegas
was leaving at 8:30 in the morning. I had a show at the Rio that night.
* * *
As I flew home, I could not write. I was still feeling like an electrified cat. I read a
little more on my Kindle – I’m reading The Devil and the White City, a history
of the Columbian Exposition of 1893 and the serial killer H. H. Holmes. I dozed
and watched an episode of “Monk” on my iPod. I leafed through the “Macbeth” program.
Every name was connected with a face.
On the title page, I noticed: Yes, as I requested, they had dedicated the show to Rosey,
my high school mentor, who had clinched my love of Shakespeare and with whom I’d
developed the theories of magic that have underpinned my career.
I looked out the window at the reddening clouds. Rosey would, I think, have been pleased.