Play 5: Macbeth (Neb Shakespeare Fest, Omaha)

2009 June 19

In the three or so months in planning out the details of this summer, I decided to take the first month and tag as many Shakespeare festivals and plays as I could. Then in April, I sat down at the beginning of spring break and built a first calendar and found, no surprise, that the majority of plays were being performed in the the month of July. June, according to my first calendar, was pretty sparse; July and August were packed. After a second draft of the calendar, I had decided on a trip that I would call my “MidAmerica” leg of my summer with a performance in Kansas City or St. Louis and possibly one in Iowa City at the Riverside theater. After scratching off my Stratford, Ontario trip (mostly because I’d been there 13 times), I had to find places for Julius Caesar and Macbeth–two of the more popular tragedies.

My plan to include the Nebraska Shakespeare Festival version Macbeth came later in the planning, but this weekend’s leg of my journey made for the type of trip where I was seeing a play each day. After last weekend’s long hauls (over 8 hours a day), I figured the trip to Nebraska would be uneventful. It was, for the most part, aside for one hailstorm that stopped traffic on I-80 just east of the the Iowa-Illinois border.

I’m trying to get better at this “on-the-road” thing and trying to avoid the stops to food establishments along the Interstate. So my stop to Martins in Goshen to add a few food items to my light blue cooler was my attempt into crossing over into “novice” traveler from green one. I got some bananas and a deli sandwich for lunch (on the road). For dinner, which I’d bring with me to the festival that night: sushi (California Brown Rice).

I suppose the hail storm that hit us four hours later, we on I-80, was perhaps a warning to me to refrain from singing any song from “The Music Man.” I live by Gary, Indiana (Gary, Indiana) and I know how annoying that song could get let alone:

So, what the heck, you’re welcome,
Glad to have you with us.
Even though we may not ever mention it again.

I had always regarded Iowa as a boring, humid, farm-smelling state. When we decided to travel straight through from Santa Rosa, California to Grand Rapids, Michigan (about two full days of non-stop driving) Iowa was the part of the trip where you really hated your fellow passengers. And, for some reason, Iowa was usually sometime during the middle of the night, so all you would remember was the late summer smells and “feels” of the BlackHawk state.

My last 40 hour haul from California to the Midwest was in 1988 when Kenton flew out from Pennsylvania and made the drive with me in a silver 1988 Ford Festiva filled with everything that I claimed was my own. I think his breaking point in the trip was when I put in the soundtrack to “Cats” –again–somewhere in Nebraska and I think something just snapped in his head. Either way, we didn’t talk much through Iowa, but I still regarded Iowa as just another farm-smelling, corn-growing state that was between home and my destination. I remember spending many a moment–on that trip through those in-between states–looking up to the sky and envying every passenger on every jet flying overhead in their air-conditioned, reclining seats. I wonder if Kenton felt the same way.

I found myself liking Iowa today though. Maybe it’s because Iowa is on the national radar once every Presidential election cycle or more recently with the state’s decision to lift the ban on gay marriage, but I think there is something “there” in Iowa. They seem to be progressive with the overwhelming site of windmill farms along the west part of I-80, something that Indiana has yet to embrace. Also–and maybe because this was only a day trip and not the tail end of a 40-hour marathon drive across the country–the hills of the western part of Iowa are, well, beautiful. Either way, I’m finding that states which I have made cursitory label-slaps on are actually good places to live. I’m seeing my “never would live there” list getting smaller and smaller.

My company from Goshen to Omaha was my direction co-pilot “Karen” and Bill Bryson telling me what he found out about the Bard in Shakespeare: The World as Stage. I usually avoid scholarly discussions about literature: it just doesn’t interest me much. You read some official-sounding academic pontificate about Hamlet or Macbeth once and you will probably find someone arguing the exactly opposite. I suppose then, me thinks, that I’ve placed the rhetorical and intellectual level of these conversations on par with other such exchanges regarding politics and religion and even sports: lots of hand waving, lots of raised tempers and lots of “unequivocal” proof (in forms of block quotes, sound bites, and men in front of white boards circling minutiae).

But I tend to trust Bryson; he seems to be a reasonable guy and I’ve grown to trust his storytelling on journeys through Australia and Europe and the Appalachian Trail. Lori and I tried to listen to this book before, but it was such a departure of Bryson-as-central-character (and make me laugh), that we gave up after Disk 1. When I got the grant (a family holiday now in our home), I knew that I should at least give Bryson another try. And glad I did. I won’t give away too much of the plot, but in general, Bryson will tell you in somewhat interesting exposition of the context of William Shakespeare and that for a guy whom we’ve make the god of the English Language and English teacher, little is known (compared to our modern Facebook update standards) about his life. That is to say: little is known that is a verifiable fact. With what is verifiable fact, Bryson pieces those parts of the puzzle and concludes that for as much as we think we know about the most talked about playwright in the Modern English Language, we barely have the edge pieces connected together of an accurate portrait of Shakespeare. (As an aside: I love the part about spelling: apparently it really wasn’t that big of a deal back in the day). And Bryson ends with a reasonable conclusion: that because we know little about Shakespeare, many people (scholars) have gone to the mat on trying to prove that Shakespeare didn’t even write the plays that we attribute to the Stradford-upon-Avon man. Bryson’s conclusion is much like my attitude regarding literature scholars: almost all conjecture and little fact and a lot of hand-waving for attention or publication.

Let’s just say that he, Bryson, made the trek across Illinois and Iowa enjoyable and I suppose I wouldn’t have enjoyed listening to his book as much in any other context.

I arrived at the University of Nebraska-Omaha campus a bit early because I had thought that one of the actors was going to talk about the play in a Q&A forum. Instead, the vendors were in the middle of setting up and a good handful of people already had staked out claim to their seating areas with blankets or camping chairs. I choose a place still in the shade a bit toward the back next to an older couple who had a few extra chairs set up for most likely for family. It was just nice to sit and stop moving for an hour or so. By the time the performance would begin, the entire area would be filled with families and friends and a few dogs (another post for another time).

I loved the stage for the production: It appeared to be the high interior walls of a castle with some signs of destruction taking place. Vines spread out from the floor to the top of the large cornered pillars and those vines resembled more the veins of a human body than your friendly decorative foliage of the front of a home. And there was the entrances to each of the arches so we could see what the entering character was doing or eavesdropping in on before an appearance. This wouldn’t work on a smaller, in-house stage as well. But because of the location, the stage allowed us in god-like fashion see that what happens on and off the stage.

As noted by the patron to my left who had seen several productions  of the festival through the years, the sound and micking of the players was impeccable. “They got it down to a science now,” she told me. And we’re not talking about individual mics that actors would headset; these were stage mics and from my vantage point (or sitting spot), I had no problem hearing the lines from about 300 or so feet back.

I wasn’t sure of Macbeth, the actor that is, because he seemed shorter for a lead character. I didn’t pick up on his slow transition toward believing that killing King Duncan would be a good idea in MacbethLand. I think, though, it’s Lady Macbeth that carries the better lines and is possibly the main presence on stage during the first three acts of the play. All that changed, though, after the intermission and Macbeth is again coerced by the witches. At one point, after the “Toil, toil…trouble” section, several things are happening on stage that made me say “Wow.” It was one of those “perfect execution” moments where lighting, choreography, sound and music along with spoken lines–staging I suppose its called–work how it is supposed to…how it was envisioned. The effect was an oddly beautiful dance of the three witches with Macbeth and in the end we see a manipulated Macbeth fueled by a suggestion of greatness by the spirit world. It almost makes one think about the problem presented in the book of Job in the bible and how little these characters–Job and Macbeth– have control over the bigger events in life. I suppose the characters (and possibly we the audience) can only control our reactions to those events. I still don’t know how then we can justify an order to kill the children of a perceived rival (in this case McDuff’s family), but then again, I’m not sure this play is about justifying a person’s actions.

I don’t remember other Macbeth productions and their portrayal of the three witches or hags. Most of the time we get to see some caricatures of our old ideas of a witch: nose and warts and bad posture. This production took more of a Midsummer Nights Dream fairy world crossed with the sassiness of the witch of “Into the Woods” and mix in a playfulness of the god character of Glory in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (season 5). The witches in this production seem to care and perhaps are infatuated with Macbeth (or, as implied in the last scene with Malcom, any one who is rising toward power). Their costumes were more sea nymph-like and their movement more flexible like ballet than hunched over for a walker.

Along with the four previous plays I seen thus far, this was an opening night. And like those other productions, the Nebraska Shakespeare Festival is feeling the squeeze of a recessive economy. Where for many years the festival would do two productions, this year Macbeth is the only play. There’s also a heightened awareness to donation giving and there were many opportunities to give to the festival. And though there might have been fewer people at this opening night (as the woman to my left informed) there was still a positive energy to this offering to its community. This was the biggest audience thus far that I was a member of–probably more than 500 people. This was also a fairly established festival celebrating its 23rd year of free Shakespeare in the Park to the community of Omaha and Council Bluffs and the region.

I had decided to stay in Kansas City for the night as I wasn’t able to secure a hotel room in the Omaha area with (possibly attributed to the College World Series being in town). I hated the drive on I-29: lots of two-laned driving due to road construction and on the account of it being pretty dark out. I would pull into the ExtendedStay around 1:13 pm only to be told by a sign that office hours were only until 11 p.m. Eventually I got into my room, flipped through a few channels, brushed my teeth and drifted off to sleep.

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