It’s a Wednesday night at the Stockbridge Theater, and two of theatre KAPOW’s lead actors for Macbeth are fighting with scarlet scarves.
Carey Cahoon sits off to the side, muttering her nine parts to herself, while fight choreographer Bob Haas directs Peter Josephson (Macbeth) and Wayne Asbury (Macduff) as they menacingly thrash, jab and twirl their strips of fabric at one another. Between attacks, they circle like dogs in an alleyway, jeering and taunting in Shakespearean meter.
Nearly this whole rehearsal has been reserved to practice this scene — the death of Macbeth — which turns out to be a good thing. Fighting with scarves, the actors and directors find out, can be a bit more complicated than with swords, especially since these weapons also act as all other props. (Costumes, blood, masks, babies, you name it.)
The trick, Haas explains, is to emphasize the transition between dialogue and fight.
“Outside of combat, relax,” Haas says. “You’re two generals in the Scottish army who know each other quite well. That way, what it’s going to do is it’s going to go from relaxed to heightened, from relaxed to heightened. And I think that’s going to show greater difference, especially since these are what we’re fighting with.”
Naturally, when the company set Macbeth as its season premiere, members knew it couldn’t be the been-done version of Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy, with period costumes and 20-plus cast members. They’re doing it the theatre KAPOW way: with monochromatic costumes, one set piece, three actors and, yes, scarves.
And it happens Halloween at midnight.
Historically, theatre KAPOW, run by husband-wife team Matt and Carey Cahoon, has provided a solid mix of modern and classic plays during their themed seasons.
Often times, as with Penelope (performed last year, it plays off The Odyssey) and Desdemona: A Play About a Handkerchief (also last year, a behind-the-scenes look at Othello), they perform modern takes of classics.
But they’ve never done Shakespeare for real.
“We have talked about it. We’ve thought about it. But there wasn’t the right … I don’t know. Maybe we were chicken. But also, Shakespeare shows are huge,” Carey Cahoon said during an interview at the start of rehearsal. “But when it came down to setting the season for this year, we landed on the date of Halloween at the Opera House.”
The opportunity was there — they knew they wanted to explore the company’s 2014-2015 theme “see” in this fall production, and certainly, if you want to perform a show on Halloween related to perception, Macbeth fits perfectly. The venue lends itself, too.
“The Opera House is one of God’s loudest buildings. Ever. Even if you just shift in your seat, there will be a noise. So there’s this creepy factor. Plus it’s this 100-year-old building,” Carey Cahoon said.
Everything seemed to point toward Macbeth.
“And so then we started talking seriously about doing our version of Macbeth and what that might look like,” she said.
This Macbeth looks minimalistic.
It will be a modern, stripped-down look at the classic. Ideally, Matt Cahoon hopes audience members forget Shakespeare wrote the play in the early 1600s.
“We talk about this almost every night. It’s funny. I think we would all answer that question differently. But to me, it’s about, as so many other shows we do are, the fact that you can take Macbeth out of the time it was written and it can still resonate,” Matt Cahoon said.
In this version, Carey Cahoon, Asbury and Josephson aren’t just characters in Macbeth. They are actors playing characters in Macbeth.
Audiences will see them as storytellers “revealing” the backstory of this production to audiences. They each perform eight to nine parts and must learn one third of Macbeth, so audiences will see their minimalist costume changes — a re-arranging of a scarf, a change in posture and voice — onstage, and they will see the storytellers physically altering the light or moving about sets of the theater.
“There’s a lot of emphasis on the actors doing everything,” Matt Cahoon said. “You can take them out of Scottish kilts and the swords out of their hands, and the big sets and casts away, and what you’re left with are the actors and the story.”
One is fighting with scarves. Another, yes, is memorizing one third of Shakespeare’s play.
“I was so stupid,” Josephson said, remembering talking about the play during the idea’s inception. “Matt said, ‘Is it possible?’ I said, ‘Well of course it’s possible! We all know the play!’ What I’ve discovered: Oh my goodness. Learning a third of Macbeth is huge. But there are actors who’ve learned the whole thing. Alan Cumming just learned the whole thing for a one-man show.”
There’s also trepidation at tackling something so renowned.
“With Macbeth, on every page, or every other page, you hit a line that’s like one of the most famous lines in theater,” Matt Cahoon said. “But it’s a play. We’re used to putting on a play. It’s a great play, it’s a hard play, but we’ve done other great and hard plays too. There’s language —you need to get used to speaking in meter and speaking in Shakespearean text, but after that, you’re telling a story like any other story.”
The biggest challenge, as true with any play but especially with Macbeth, is getting to the meat of the work.
“The lines are difficult, but they’re secondary to the psychology of the play,” Asbury said.
To say this endeavor is ambitious would be an understatement, particularly with the company’s October schedule. During these rehearsals, the company was also preparing for not one but two big events that weekend: the 24 Hour Play Festival at the Stockbridge Theater, which they co-produce, and Shakespeare readings for the New Hampshire Philharmonic’s Sunday concert, “Shakespeare Lives.”
They were also fresh from an Oct. 12 play reading at the Currier and readying themselves for a Bedford Public Library gala Nov. 9, during which they’ll perform three of Chekhov’s popular farces.
“It’s what some would call mad, yes,” Carey Cahoon said, smiling. “But at the same time, it’s great to be so busy. And you know, it’s nice to be in demand.”
As seen in the October 23, 2014 issue of the Hippo.