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Sound and fury at the Rep

'Macbeth' opens the season.


MORTAL COMBAT: Macduff (Rabinowitz) is Macbeth's (Allen) nemesis.
  • MORTAL COMBAT: Macduff (Rabinowitz) is Macbeth's (Allen) nemesis.

Shakespeare "is to be seen and not read," says Michael Stewart Allen, who plays Macbeth in the Arkansas Repertory's upcoming performance of the Scottish Play, and so we can cast away any trepidation left over from struggles with the Bard's 16th century verse during high school English.

Even the actors in "Macbeth," which opens Friday, Sept. 11, weren't quite sure what their lines meant when they gathered for their readings of the play, Allen said. But the play's the thing, to quote another Shakespeare play: Once the actors started to speak the lines, act the lines — put the play "on its feet" as they say — the genius of the English-speaking world's greatest writer emerges.

At any rate, "Macbeth," the bloodiest of Shakespeare's plays, about a man whose ambition to be king turns him into a murderer and then a madman, has so many familiar lines that one need not worry about grasping the words. The opening — the three witches — must be the most familiar theatrical scene there is. So screw your courage to the sticking post and dig in, because something wicked this way comes.

"I'm always excited when we can do Shakespeare," producing artistic director Robert Hupp said. Hupp, who's referred to the play as the "original 'House of Cards' " in publicity, noted the great response that has met The Rep's previous Shakespearean productions, which come roughly every two or three years — "Henry V" in 2012, especially; "Hamlet" in 2010; "Much Ado About Nothing" in 2005; "Romeo and Juliet" in 2004, and "The Tempest" in 2002.

This is Hupp's first time to direct "Macbeth." No matter; "Shakespeare gives you everything you need to know in the words," he said. Rather than bringing it into contemporary times (an Australian production staged it as a gang war), he's leaving it smack dab in the grim 11th century, with period costumes and wigs and so forth, and lets the language lead.

Though Macbeth's "rise and fall is universal," Hupp said, he thought it was important that it keep its evocative historical distance. Set designer Mike Nichols has created a minimal stage inspired by the standing stones of Scotland, to create the feel of both castle and battlefield. A computer program being created by Aristotle will add a "surprise" element, Hupp said. Mark Binns has composed an original score for the season opener, using electronic keyboards, a violin, a viola, percussion and a French horn to mark the movement of time and providing each character with his own theme.

Geoffrey Kent is the fight director, choreographing the swordfights. Allen and Seth Rabinowitz (Macduff) "have fought on stage before," Rabinowitz said, but with more directed choreography. Kent, instead, has asked them, "What do you want to do with your sword?" so that they may play out their characters in how they choose to fight. "Their job," Hupp said, "is to give the impression of danger, eight times a week," without actually harming one another. (The swords are wooden, but heavy).

In fact, Hupp said, historically it is accidents with the swords that created the mythology around "Macbeth" that it is cursed and that it brings such misfortunate that it is bad luck even to say its name aloud. (Sir Lawrence Olivier's sword broke during one fight, sending a shard into the audience and giving a playgoer a heart attack. Another actor was stabbed with a sword during a performance and eventually died of his wounds. And so forth.) Some say it is the dim lighting often used to produce the drear ambiance that has helped rack up the injuries.

Whatever, the actors at The Rep don't seem to be afraid of disaster. That might be because they will wear blessed shoes. When they arrived, one of the first things they did was have their feet traced for moccasins to be made by FaeMoon Wolf Designs of Colorado. FaeMoon's Katy and Crowwolf, a Lakota Sioux, blessed the completed moccasins with smoke before sending them here.

Allen has appeared in Rep productions "Wait Until Dark," "Of Mice and Men," "Romeo and Juliet" and "The Grapes of Wrath." Rabinowitz is making his debut at The Rep, as is Jacqueline Correa, as Lady Macbeth. Mitch Tebo, who plays the doomed Duncan but gets to return in later acts in other roles, performed in "Henry V" at The Rep.

The tragedy runs through Sept. 27 with public performances at 7 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Sundays. Opening night is sold out. Pay your age night, which provides four tickets for persons 40 and under, is Sept. 13. Hupp and the cast will talk about the play at noon Sept. 10 in Sturgis Hall at the Clinton School of Public Service. The Arkansas Times and Golden Eagle are sponsoring a preshow brew tasting of Goose Island at 6 p.m. Sept. 24. The Smittle Band performs at The Rep bar Foster's before the Sept. 25 performance, and there will be an after-party with the cast at Foster's on Sept. 26.

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