The witches of Shakespeare’s Macbeth come across as less than spellbinding. Cackling, “Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble,” they’re often hunched over bubbling cauldrons filled with eyes of newt and other staples of Halloween party stores.
That iconic coven convenes beginning this Halloween in an unfamiliar way. Two women and a man, wearing sneakers and punkish leather jackets, will perform a 20-minute blood ritual reminiscent of modern Wicca. And unlike the stereotypical old hags, these witches are young nomads on the fringes of society. “We bear societal rejection in an in-between land not attachable to anything,” says Ellie Gossage, who plays one of the witches, during a rehearsal of Act I in late October.
Unlike in Shakespeare's original play, these contemporary witches remain present throughout the No Name Theatre Collective’s adaptation of the bloody tragedy, which premiered on October 31 at a warehouse in Brooklyn. The year-old classical theater troupe set the story of a murderous couple in a space vaguely evoking “everywhere and nowhere” and running on female-centric magic and mayhem.
Tatiana Baccari, who directs the play, embraces the chaotic magic of Macbeth as a metaphor for power dynamics. In her version, characters swap genders; lady-kings rule over Scotland; and witches roam the stage. “It’s about powers that are bigger than ourselves, the supernatural and whether that exists,” she says. “It's one of those plays that believes in the power of imagination.”
Imagination, indeed. Baccari embarks on uncharted narrative terrain here. Most notably, Lady M (Lady Macbeth in backstage talk) fulfills her biggest wish, summed up in her opening speech, “Unsex me here!” “I thought it would be really cool where we take her words seriously more than any other person in the play,” says Baccari, who last summer directed HVMET, a queer adaptation of Hamlet. “So she gets to be the man, to have the power that she has never been really able to have.”
Power is a buzzword in this production. Annaliese Kirby, who plays Lady Macbeth, stresses that it’s not a play about gender. It’s really about the desire for power, which ultimately destroys the characters. “Having the swap takes gender out of it,” she says. “Power shouldn’t be correlated with gender.”
Kirby and Kellan Peavy, who plays Macbeth, studied each other’s physicality to prep for the switch. This intimacy could be felt when they first embraced during a rehearsal for Act I. Their projected whispers of dark tidings suggested a sinister closeness — a feeling that something wicked this way comes.
The creative space No Name conjures is anything but wicked. The collective, founded a year ago by Kirby and Maggie Hood (who also plays Lady Macduff), is like a protective coven of Shakespeare savants. All ideas are welcome, and all parts are fair game.
“It’s more about the acting than if you look like Juliet,” says Hood, who studied classical theater at NYU's Tisch and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in the UK. Most of No Name's members, including Kirby and Baccari, trained there or in similar programs. At No Name, there’s no pretense, though. The collective aims to make Shakespeare more accessible. It produced its first show, the comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream, last year.
Marlena Holman, an actor playing both Lady-King Duncan and Hecate, a head witch, especially praises the safe space fostered by a “woke” female director like Baccari, who also founded the feminist collective Experimental Bitch Presents. Holman said Baccari helps the cast bridge the world of the play with current events, including that other theater called politics. “Why has this lady-king been in power for so long?” Holman says. “How do people trust you? We deal with that with Hillary Clinton.”
Baccari felt drained during a rehearsal due to the recent Las Vegas shootings, proposed mandates on birth control, and sexual assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein. It was a perform storm of triggers. So she held a cast meeting to check in on people. Despite its supernatural trappings, Macbeth can feel too relevant. “It needed to happen. I was distracted in rehearsal. It was harder to connect with people,” she says. “So much of this play is about people feeling like they are in danger. It’s a lot of what we’re experiencing right now.”
Hood describes this uncanny feeling as the play’s “creep factor.” A tragedy staged on Halloween night in a warehouse, where magic and murder abound, summons familiar fears. “The scariest part is that I could be Macbeth and so could you. I could be Lady Macbeth and so could you,” she says. “Yes, there are witches. But the scariest part is that it could’ve been me.”
Macbeth, presented by No Name Theatre Collective, runs October 31 to November 5 at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Tickets are $30 general admission and $25 for seniors and students.
Top photo: rom left to right, Jaya Tripathi, Reid Spencer and Ellie Gossage play the three witches. Credit: Jenny Catlow Photography
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Alexander Gonzalez is a freelance journalist in New York. He is finishing up his master's in magazine storytelling at New York University's Arthur L. Carter Institute of Journalism. He reports culture stories that have taken him backstage at New York Fashion Week, French election parties in the Upper West Side, and art galleries in Bushwick. Follow him on Twitter @alexgonz10 on @alexgonz10.