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The Creepy Sounds of “Radio Macbeth”

SITI Radio Macbeth

SITI Company injects Shakespeare with radio and Orson Welles.

Take a moment to close your eyes: Imagine a castle where a vicious soldier sneaks into a king’s bedroom and stabs him while he sleeps. Picture the flickering light of the room, the glint of the dagger, the crimson wash of the blood. Unsettling, right? Now you’re primed for SITI Company’s Radio Macbeth .

Running through October 17 at Dance Theater Workshop, the show fuses Shakespeare’s tragedy with elements of radio drama and nods to Orson Welles, who both staged his own famous version of Macbeth and caused a national panic with his radio drama War of the Worlds. The result is a spooky, stylized production that defies categorization.

When the show begins, for instance, we might not recognize it as Macbeth. Instead of Scottish nobles, we see a group of nattily dressed actors from the 1930s (or thereabouts) sitting in a gutted-out theatre. Surrounded by microphones and props like wooden blocks and cowbells, they start performing the show as if it were on the radio. Slowly, though, the Shakespeare alters them. The radio actors seem overcome by the passion of their characters, and the light and sound suggest that something truly ominous has crept into the room.

Ideally, however, our traditional understanding of Macbeth never creeps in at all. “We tend to put so much on the play, but we don’t need to see the blood and the daggers,” says Darron L. West, who sound designed the production and co-directed it with SITI artistic director Anne Bogart. “If you just listen to the words, it can be incredible. I wanted a present-day audience to sit in the dark and access this play, and then let their imaginations create the battle scenes and the witches and everything else.”

Radio drama seemed like the perfect vehicle for those ideas. “I believe the art of theatre is putting the least amount on stage and having the audience do the most, and radio has that in spades,” says Bogart.

She continues that Radio Macbeth is meant to live in the space between radio drama and live theatre. On one hand, we see the performers and know they are playing actors. We don’t assume they are actually Lady Macbeth or Banquo. But on the other, we hear the performers, and we picture the story they’re spinning with Shakespeare’s words. If all goes well, we straddle two worlds, and both feel real at the same time. We feel both the power of Macbeth and the energy coursing through the radio show.

Bogart also hopes we gain a deeper appreciation of Orson Welles. She was inspired to create Radio Macbeth after SITI staged its own version of War of the Worlds, using the same radio script that Welles himself directed and paying homage to some of his techniques. To underline the connection between those shows, SITI will also perform its War of the Worlds at select performances of Radio Macbeth. (This is the first time the pieces will appear on the same bill.)

“A lot of my work is about artists on whose shoulders I want to stand, and Orson Welles is one of those Americans I can’t get enough of,” says Bogart, noting that many people unfortunately remember Welles at the end of his career, when he was appearing in wine commercials and voicing a character in the animated Transformers movie. “The idea of remembering him as a vibrant artist is important to me,” she continues. “I want to remember the power of the pieces he created.”

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Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor.

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