I f you heard that battles, beheadings and supernatural manifestations were occurring nightly in a certain city park, you might consider finding another place to walk your dog. Yet folks are streaming from throughout the city to Edgerton Park, which is under siege by witches, ghosts and savage Scotsman through September 2.
The venerable Elm Shakespeare Company is presenting Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth, and the play is intertwined with the park. Edgerton’s magnificent trees surround and define the stage area. This is, after all, a drama where the titular tyrant is ultimately undone when a forest is literally willed to move: “Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane Hill shall come against him.”
The staging, by Allyn Burrows, lets Macbeth’s battle-scarred bravado and witchcraft flare up quite close to the audience. When a porter in Macbeth’s home gives a comic speech and calls out to “you, whose places are the nearest,” he gestures directly at the common folk he’s talking about, nearly touching them.
Those nearest-placed theatergoers are sitting on blankets. Behind them is the lawn-chair area. Some audience members quietly roam the perimeters of this ad-hoc auditorium. Babies attend, as do dogs. This air of respectful informality infuses Elm Shakespeare shows with an amiability and accessibility they simply would not have if they were held inside a theater or a school hall.
Elm Shakespeare works both sides of the fence, providing free Shakespeare for the groundlings and a tony cocktail-in-the-park party for its more pecunious patrons. On the Thursday before the show ends its three-week run, Elm Shakespeare is holding its annual fundraising gala prior to that evening’s 8 p.m. performance, with drinks and a buffet from 5-7:30 p.m. and an auction at 6:45 p.m. (A separate online auction began August 16 at www.biddingforgood.com/elmshakespeare.)
The set design for Macbeth, by Elizabeth Bolster (who also did the costumes), furthers this feeling of outdoorsy comfort and exuberance by evoking how European cultures gathered in ancient times. Giant rocks carved with runic symbols are placed around the stage, and the whole three-story set suggests a temple as much as it does an army fortress or a castle.
Just as Shakespeare’s play elevates its title character from soldier to ruler of Scotland, the Elm Shakespeare Company shakes up the usual class divisions and onstage opportunities you associate with live theater. Seasoned professionals share the stage with teen interns. The aforementioned porter is played by Alvin Epstein, whose impressive stage career includes playing Lucky in the first New York production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Macbeth’s friends-turned-adversaries Macduff and Banquo are played respectively by Colin Lane (veteran of many Irish and English dramas on New York and regional stages) and Mark Zeisler (who’s had lead roles in numerous shows at Yale Rep, Long Wharf and beyond). But the heartwarming thing is that New Haven audiences are just as likely to know these fine actors from Elm Shakespeare shows as they are from their New York or national fame. The company breeds loyalty. Lane, Zeisler, Epstein and director Allyn Burrows (who runs the Actors Shakespeare Project in Boston, and will play Macbeth there himself next season opposite the Lady Macbeth from this production, Marianna Bassham) are among the many performers who’ve notched up four or more Elm Shakespeare credits. Jeremy Funke, seen this year in the minor yet eye-catching role of Seyton, has done ten ESC shows.
Despite the infighting and skullduggery onstage, this is an indomitable community endeavor. The company’s founder, Artistic Director for all 17 of its seasons and current Macbeth is James Andreassi. He’s the guy who, every year at the close of each performance, asks audiences to please drop “five dollars, ten dollars… a MILLION dollars!” in the donation baskets on their way out of the park.
Andreassi’s banked a lot of good will over the years, both from appreciative audiences (which number in the thousands every summer) and from Elm Shakespeare’s casts, crews, designers and behind-the-scenes volunteers. He’s earned them partly through his abilities as a performer and director. Until Macbeth, Andreassi hadn’t given himself a starring role in several summers, preferring to direct such ambitious Shakespeare works as Measure for Measure and The Winter’s Tale. Sometimes he’s worn both the actor and director hats in the same production, and one time he had to step overnight into the daunting comic role of Falstaff when another actor had a health scare. James Andreassi’s Macbeth is a human-scaled performance in a grand outdoor expanse. It centers the often antic and energetic production, just as Andreassi’s leadership (decidedly less cutthroat than Macbeth’s) centers Elm Shakespeare in general.
The Elm Shakespeare troupe works year-round, staging contemporary dramas such as Yasmina Reza’s Art and David Mamet’s American Buffalo during the winter months at the Kehler-Liddell art gallery in Westville, and sharing their love of the classics with area schoolchildren. In the past, they’ve expanded their reach to include outdoor productions of playwrights other than Shakespeare (including Moliere and Thornton Wilder, and adaptations of Robin Hood and The Three Musketeers), and toured to parks outside New Haven.
But doing Shakespeare plays among the trees in Edgerton Park is what Elm Shakespeare is best known for. It’s right there in their name, after all.
“When shall we three meet again?” the witches ask at the very beginning of this dark drama, and you want to shout back: “Next summer!”
The Elm Shakespeare Company presents Macbeth by William Shakespeare
Edgerton Park, 75 Cliff Street, New Haven (map)
Thursday August 23 through Sunday September 2, 8 p.m. (except Monday the 27th)
Written by Christopher Arnott. Photographed by Mike Franzman.