The global 400th anniversary observations of William Shakespeare’s death begin officially this April. But the second-year MFA students of the FSU/Asolo Conservatory are starting their tribute to the Bard a little early, with a production of his tragedy Macbeth (often called “the Scottish play” in deference to longstanding theatrical superstition that saying the name aloud brings bad luck), onstage now at the Cook Theatre through March 13.
The Conservatory’s second-year acting teacher, Jonathan Epstein, directs the play. He’s responsible for the yearlong Shakespeare training of the 12 students (who all appear in the production). With a background as both actor and director, including a 25-year association with Lenox, Mass.-based Shakespeare & Company, Epstein seems uniquely qualified to guide these young actors through the difficulties and rewards of playing Shakespeare.
On a recent evening in a classroom-slash-rehearsal room at the FSU Performing Arts Center, an early read-through of the play was sparking some questions from Epstein’s cast as they huddled around tables armed with sharpened pencils and scripts. First question of the evening came from student Rob Glauz, who asked about the goddess/spirit Hecate. (He is, in a gender-switching performance, playing Hecate.) “How does Hecate fit in?” he asked Epstein.
“I think Hecate is the spirit of the malign,” Epstein answered. “Otherwise, people are by and large doing their best here, and the tragedy lies in that the best they can do is as bad as it is. Macbeth is doing his best, even as he’s tricked and cajoled into killing his patron through his love for his wife [played by Danielle Renella, as a mother in mourning following the recent death of her child]. Even the witches have no choice in what they do. The difference between a melodrama and a Shakespeare tragedy is that in a melodrama, you know if you do wrong things, it turns out badly. In a tragedy, things are going to turn out badly anyway; that’s the nature of the world.”
More questions followed as the students tried to ascertain their motivations while gamely delivering Shakespeare’s verse, with Epstein at times actually hammering out the beats. “That’s a six-banger,” he said at one point as a student read lines. Then
he acknowledged: “Sometimes the sense is more important than the scansion.” Asked one cast member: “In the line, ‘Fair is
foul and foul is fair,’ what meaning does ‘fair’ have?”
“I think it has two meanings,” Epstein answered. “Both beauty and evenhandedness.” Definitions of more obscure words—wassail, posset, etc.—or the pronunciation of a word in a famous soliloquy (“I prefer incardaDINE,” Epstein told actor Brett Mack, who is playing the murderous Macbeth, regarding a poetic reference to a thorough blood-soaking) were provided, along with other directorial advice. “When you can discover what you’re going to say, just before you say it,” said Epstein, “that means the audience is hearing things for the first time.” Another tip: It’s key to anthropomorphize abstract terms like “death” or “nature” or “time”—“So you can actually see them.”
In fact, the production, which relies on a simple design concept using large muslin panels on wheels that can help to cast shadows representing stage battles or the trees of Birnam Wood, asks the audience to use their own imaginations “to make it look like something real,” points out Epstein.
The approach stays true to Shakespeare in abstracting the action from any specific time period, but the actors will wear fairly contemporary clothing (actors in Shakespeare’s time wore the clothing of their era, says Epstein) that suggests a primitive culture.
Months of classroom work prior to rehearsal have, Epstein says, “established a common language and a sense of what the style and techniques are, not just in Shakespeare, but in playing other types of theater” the students will launch into later at the Conservatory.
Epstein, who has trimmed the script by nearly a third, says the play is “efficient in telling a story, and the language so vivid the audience will understand every word even if they don’t know every word.” But he also warns that “people have an expectation that is really different from what’s in the play; they expect a barbarian warlord and his ruthless queen. But what we really have here is a young woman who’s just lost a child and is trying to toughen herself up, and a man who doesn’t really start thinking rationally until well into the play. Until then he’s really just in his imagination. He thinks more than Hamlet.”
Ultimately, Epstein says, his goal is for his students to share with the audience “a sense of awe, at how passionate and delicate and fragile human life is, to create a chance to become more human by participating in a 400-year-old tradition. There has never been a year since Macbeth was written that someone wasn’t doing this play,” he says.