This Travelers' Macbeth in Bushwick takes the Bard where he’s never been before.
Photo by Thea Garlid
If you are the sort of person who is intrigued by the idea of watching a Shakespearean tragedy performed in a shipping container in Bushwick by an ensemble that likely outnumbers the audience, you probably already know it. The experience requires some knowledge of the source material, reasonable comfort with getting up close and personal with the performers and more than anything an open mind. But what you may not expect out of a two-sentence description of Dzieci Theatre Group’s Makbet is to be welcomed as though you were family.
Friendly gentlemen with Eastern European accents will direct you to their theater of choice in the out-of-the-way locale, by day the Sure We Can redemption center, where the rest of the troupe offer you kielbasa, vodka and translations of what the spirits want to tell you, all accompanied by rousing music on guitar and drum. Rarely does a modern audience get to experience a situation where the actors make an effort to learn your name and make you feel at home. And all this is before the play even starts.
Dzieci’s version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth isn’t just about the unconventional setting, either. This theatrical experiment comes with a set of rules, mainly that (most of) the roles will be performed by just three actors, who must constantly shift between them with only the use of a few costume pieces, and none of it is preplanned. So, after a brief demonstration of how to identify the characters, we begin.
Photo by Yuri Yurov
You will likely need to have at least read Macbeth before to keep all of the minor characters straight, but it is remarkable how well this ensemble tells an emotionally engaging, clear story of Shakespearean complexity. Matt Mitler, Megan Bones and Yvonne Brecht seamlessly meld in and out of the roles, and while the largest crowd scenes are somewhat difficult to portray with only three principal performers, other scenes feel as though they were meant to be performed this way. Macbeth’s soliloquies are absolutely entrancing when shared amongst the trio, while the chemistry of the three witches is beautiful.
Makbet’s acting style is much more physical and visceral than many may be accustomed to in Shakespeare, whether that’s the unabashed physical affection between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth or the witches’ domination of Macbeth during their first encounter. The constant shifting of roles between the actors also allows for fascinating transgressive gender moments as well as the maturing of relationships throughout the show. The two young women portraying the happy, carefree Macbeths cut a far different figure from Mitler, an older man, and one of the women’s later worries or Mitler's increasingly unstable Lady Macbeth.
Music infuses every moment of the show, filling in pauses or punctuating the action, and it is truly the element that allows Dzieci to make Makbet their own. And while the fact that you can see the guitarist conducting the other musicians during many moments may detract from the improvised feeling of the rest of the show, the mourning songs after each significant death are beautiful, heartbreaking and one of the highlights of the show. Along with such gripping psychological scenes as Macbeth’s encounter with Banquo’s ghost the night of his murder, Makbet is a work of art.
Photo by Troy Hahn
A few issues do arise in such close quarters, such as how incredibly distracting latecomers become. The vague gestures meant to convey stage combat whether by hand, knife or sword are also inappropriate to a setting in which the audience can see everything in such great detail. Still, other elements like the ability to pick up and control the lights manually use the limitations of the small impromptu theater to great effect.
Perhaps most important, however, is that while you may find yourself temporarily assigned a role during the play so that the performers can speak to you or handed a potato during a feast, the actors will never put you on the spot if you don’t want it. Such genuine goodwill in fact seems somewhat at odds with the subject matter of Shakespeare’s dark tragedy, but it is perfectly in line with the improvisational, freeform Traveler spirit of the production.
A “gypsy ritual Macbeth” could have gone horribly wrong, but under the expert guidance of Dzieci Theatre Group Makbet soars.
Makbet plays at the Sure We Can redemption center at 219 McKibbin Street through October 18.
This article was previously published on CHARGED.fm.