- OnStage Associate New York Theatre Critic
This immersive rendition of Macbeth talks meta-theatre and offers cherry vodka.
Dzieci Theatre sold me on using a shipping container as a venue for Makbet, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Scottish play. At Sure We Can in Brooklyn, a recycling center with funky art works, I encounter a group of actors and audience members by the trashcan fire. Gypsies from the Old Country are passing cherry vodka and kielbasa around while playing guitar and leading everybody into singing along.
Who knew that one of the most gut punching productions of Macbeth I ever saw would begin in a junkyard, among the less than glamorous piles of recyclables. Alas, after the ceremony of purification by spitting into a fire, we are ushered inside the shipping container and are offered to take a seat on milk crates on either side of the stage area. Matt Mitler, a founder of Dzieci Theatre and the director of Makbet, asks an audience member to read the “Rules of Engagement”.
According to those rules, three principle actors (Megan Bones, Yvonne Brechbuhler and Matt Mitler) must know the entire text and will switch roles by putting on a piece of costume associated with a certain character. The defining elements get introduced: a trench coat for a king, a piece of red cloth for Lady Macbeth, a hat for Macbeth and so on. The role can be “taken or given, embraced or refused”, inviting an improvisational aspect to the play. As Miller told me during the pre-show, occasionally even an audience member steps onto the Russian carpet, laid down to mark the stage.
Makbet is framed with multiple rituals, most of which are not explained to the audience. The actors sprinkle water around the fire and on the floor, wave around burning sage, and literally break bread with the audience at the end. Much of those ceremonies don’t really need an explanation. In many cultures food is shared to bring people together, and herbs are burnt to banish evil spirits, which is especially relevant with Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the cursed play. I don’t know if calling the play by its Polish name, Makbet, counts as a protective measure. “But if no one is Macbeth for too long, everybody should be safe”, - Miller assures the audience as a part of the pre-show “spiritual safety” instruction. According to the rules, actors may not play the same role in successive sequences.
The play begins with the overhead light turning off and the door to the container shutting down with a clang. My friend nervously looks at me, and a joke from earlier pops into my head; what if they seal the container and ship us somewhere? The bluish ghostly light mounted in the far back illuminates the scene alone, but not for long. The actors effectively use flashlights to create intimacy that is reminiscent of a candle’s flame.
The shipping container is both shelter and a musical instrument. The three principle actors and four members of the chorus bang on it to create an uncanny reverberating sound, making the ground shake. Vocalization and songs are sprinkled throughout Makbet. Voices, amplified by the walls of the metal container, make you shiver. In a play with few props, sound is used for the weapons. Every swoosh of sword or dagger is accompanied by the actor’s piercing screech, akin to the way children play with toy weapons.
The name of the company, “Dzieci”, translates to kids from Polish, and much of what they do in Makbet resembles a game. There are rules and there are players assuming roles spontaneously. The elements of the costumes and props that mark the characters are snatched in the middle of a phrase, or refused and then actors chase one another as if playing tag. The combination of childish playfulness and the ritualistic approach to theater makes Makbet a one of a kind immersive show.
The location, lighting and props might sound like a scrappy DIY theater, but are in fact scrupulously fitted elements. The uncombed vagabond appearance of the actors (costumes by Karen Hatt) is so realistic that you will clutch your purse out of fear of being robbed. I don’t think I ever said that in any of my reviews, but Makbet is not to be missed. The beauty of Dzieci’s production is that, seemingly without trying, it can satisfy the tastes of very diverse audiences. A Shakespeare scholar, glamorous partygoer, adventure seeker, spiritual person and theater enthusiast or not, all kinds of folk will find something precious in this experience.
Makbet plays at Sure We Can, 219 Mckibben Street in Brooklyn, through October 8th, 2017. The running time is 1 hour 30 minutes with no intermission. Performances are Tuesday through Saturday at 7:30, Sunday at 4. Tickets are $20, and are available at www.dziecitheatre.org.
Makbet is based on Macbeth by William Shakespeare. Adapted, directed, and designed by Matt Mitler. Costumes are by Karen Hatt. Ryan Castalia is the music supervisor. Choral direction is by Jesse Hathaway.
The cast is Megan Bones, Yvonne Brechbuhler, and Matt Mitler with a chorus featuring Ryan Castalia, Cris Cook, Jesse Hathaway and Felicity Doyle. Photos by Tray Hahn