Think you know ‘Macbeth’? Drive-in version startles audience

Oct 21, 2020 at 2:18 pm
Photo by Bill Brymer.
Photo by Bill Brymer.

“Scotland Underground is your only choice for news of the apocalypse.”

A few years back, Kentucky Shakespeare established an October tradition of using alternative strategies to create disruptive and innovative theatrical experiences like a couple of astonishing productions of the blood-soaked “Titus Andronicus” and radio broadcasts of Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” and a radio adaptation of George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead.”

This year, the company builds on that tradition by treating audiences to a full-on drive-in theater production fully stocked with witches, madness, murder and revenge. The play is “Macbeth.” And it is probably the darkest, most ominous and most compelling “Macbeth” you will ever see.

It’s staged in pitch-black gloom in a parking lot that was formerly a Louisville Metro recycling drop off center. But apart from a deftly condensed script (edited by Gregory Maupin, dramaturg), there is nothing recycled about this production. It feels vibrant and new.

It’s set in a stark future where the “Scotland Underground” news segments (broadcast to the audience on a low-power FM frequency) are filled with reports of contagion, terrible air quality and an ongoing rebellion. It’s wise to arrive early and tune in your radio immediately for both the news and the slyly knowing soundtrack that features classics from Leonard Cohen (“You Want It Darker”), Tom Waits (“Earth Died Screaming”), the theme from the film “Exodus” and Patti LaSalle’s 1960s teen weeper “It’s Over.” Seriously, when the apocalypse approaches, this is the playlist you’re gonna want. And you could do a lot worse than to have Maupin as your end-of-the-world deejay… So… what about the play?

No dramatist has ever equaled Shakespeare’s preternatural understanding of how the quest for and acquisition of power can destroy one’s soul. And though all of Shakespeare’s plays (and, by my count, most of the sonnets) explore aspects of that issue, it’s in “Macbeth” that Shakespeare depicts the corrupting power with absolute finality.

Given the play’s intrinsic power and its familiarity to audiences, I think it’s rare for a “Macbeth” to elevate the script in a way that can actually startle an audience. But this production, directed by Matt Wallace, does exactly that. It would have been a fine thing merely to stage an acceptable production in this moment and in this venue. But instead, this production is a triumphant act of will that carves its bitter magic straight from the ambient dark.

From a technical theater standpoint, this is one of the most seamlessly integrated shows I’ve ever seen. It’s clearly the work of an accomplished collaborative team. Scenic Designer Karl Anderson has created an effective universe. Jesse AlFord lights the stage from below, smearing the onstage cast of seven (nearly all playing multiple roles) in a palette of ominous purples, greens and reds that merge with fog to create a landscape fit for witchery, murder, madness and revenge. Some players approach the elevated stage through the parking area ­— making even a parked car seem part of the venue.

Costume Designer Donna Lawrence-Downs has garbed the players in explicitly futuristic designs (including gas masks for some of the players), but even so there are sinister echoes of medieval armor and contemporary riot gear. Laura Ellis’ sound design creates an insidious aural blend of highlands rumble, lo-fi walkie-talkie static and the hellish echoes that haunt Macbeth’s inner world. And fight choreographer Eric Frantz has created very effective stage combat.

Staging this production outdoors via radio may have presented daunting challenges, but if so, they were overcome by a production team that includes Mollie Murk (stage manager); Victoria Campbell (sound engineer); Chelsey Beeson (sound engineer) and Lindsay Krupski (master electrician/board operator).

The two characters at the center of this story must be among Shakespeare’s most vexing creatures for actors, directors and students of the play who can pore over the text looking for crumbs of moral ambivalence. But one of the most compelling aspects of this production is the ferocious conviction that Jennifer Pennington and Brian Hinds bring to their roles as Lady Macbeth and Macbeth.

There is nothing coy about these characters. Pennington brings a warrior’s sense of purpose and pragmatic fury to her role as leader of the couple’s conspiracy — even in the fraught moment when she discovers that Macbeth has failed to leave the murder weapon behind in the bed. Hinds offers a vivid and uncompromising portrayal of both the inner and outer life of Macbeth as he plunges deeper into the abyss of betrayal, assassination, conspiracy, the slaughter of innocents, the death of his wife and the gradual unraveling of the security promised him in the prophetic words of witches.

Even madness and loss cannot stifle Macbeth’s ambition. And yet, despite all his crimes, when we come to the final struggle and he cries, “Lay on Macduff and damned be him, that first cries, ‘Hold, enough,’” the fearsome power of his unyielding spirit is a palpable, emotional force.

This is a marvelous cast through and through. As noted, except for Macbeth himself, all the onstage actors play multiple roles. Pennington joins Dathan Hooper and Angelica Santiago as the spectacular trio of witches whose wild incantations and prophecies drive the action. Jon Huffman, in a fine piece of shapeshifting, opens the play as Duncan, the victim of Macbeth’s assassination plot — but then shows up in other guises, including as the servant who brings Macbeth word that his wife has died. Braden McCampbell brings an honest nobility to the role of Duncan’s son Malcolm, who flees Scotland when suspicions arise that he may have killed his father, but returns with an army to reclaim his throne and restore order. Zachary Burrell is a memorable presence as Banquo, slain at Macbeth’s command, whose ghostly visage returns to haunt Macbeth’s fevered imagination. Off-stage voices are heard from Will DeVary, Abigail Bailey Maupin, Gregory Maupin, Anna Wallace and Kyle Ware.

If you decide to attend, it’s wise to purchase tickets as soon as possible. Spaces in the parking lot are limited and audience members are required to remain in their vehicles. There is an extensive FAQ with the playbill here:

Shakespeare in the Parking Lot: ‘Macbeth’ Through Oct. 31 Kentucky Shakespeare 1297 Trevilian Way $25 per carload About 8 p.m. (parking lot opens at 7:30)