In Erica Schmidt’s wicked adaptation of “Macbeth,” seven school girls, still donning their tartan uniforms, take to an abandoned lot to perform the Bard’s famous words. Crafted from Shakespeare’s original text, the ensuing play-within-a-play lurches forward until it comes to bloody twist that blurs the line between acting and reality.
Following a successful run last spring at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, the all-female production, titled “Mac Beth,” takes its dark and twisty antics to Hunter College’s Frederick Loewe Theatre, where it will be staged through Feb. 22.
Set in a contemporary setting, the play’s final turn recalls the real-life incident of two young Wisconsin girls who stabbed their friend in 2014, only to claim that the fictional character Slender Man was to blame. The framework of the production, built from merging the classic text with objects spun from the teenagers’ world, shows how the themes presented in Shakespeare’s work continue to resonate.
Prior to the opening of the Hunter Theatre Project’s run of “Mac Beth,” we corresponded with Schmidt about adapting the text for an all-woman cast, how Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” relates to contemporary times and more.
Why stage “Mac Beth” as an all-female cast? What are the implications of setting it with teenage girls?
“Mac Beth” has quite a lot of gendered language. The characters say: “I must feel it like a man”; “I dare do all that may become a man”; “when you durst do it, then you were a man”; “this tune goes manly”; even getting dressed is called putting on “manly readiness.” The play also employs “un” before many words in order to give the feeling of things being their opposite. The witches say: “fair is foul and foul is fair” and Shakespeare aids this sense by unmaking the known with the repetition of “’un.” Of course you have: “unsex me here” but also: “unmanned”; “unprovokes”; “unfix” … the use of “un” adds to the sense of unease and horror in the language of the play. The language itself is forced to double back on itself and: “Nothing is but what is not.”
This made me ask: what would happen to this language if you heard it in a new way? What happens when young women say: “dispute it like a man”? How do you hear the play differently? Same sex casting is not a new idea. Shakespeare wrote for a company of men. I am un-doing that and working with a company of women.
The idea to use teenage girls came from questioning: what is a witch? What is a person who traffics with the occult and makes potions and believes in spirits? But really. Right now. There is a long history of young women being accused of witchcraft and teenage girls have a ferocity and power unique to being between girlhood and womanhood. Banquo says to the witches: “you should be women.” And that has a nice resonance when you think of a young girl in her adult body but still trapped in childhood (without a fully formed sense of consequence and mortality). Also, there are a whole lot of wonderful, brilliant, talented, gorgeous young actresses out there with power and ferocity and urgency and bright minds, and it is a pleasure to watch them flex their skills in these roles that usually go to older men.
How do the contemporary lives of teenage girls relate to the world of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”?
Everyone can relate to Shakespeare. “Macbeth,” the play, asks: what happens when a person stands at the edge of the worst crime they can commit (the taking of a life) and thinkingly, knowingly and feelingly chooses to do it. I believe many teenagers relate deeply to that question. Unfortunately. Look at escalating teen suicide rates and violence in our schools.
What was the process of adapting the play into a new context?
I wouldn’t say I have adapted the play into a new context. We are still on “a heath.” We are doing the play faithfully. We adhere to the text as written by Shakespeare wholeheartedly. The actors wear school girl uniforms, never leave the stage and all of the objects that help to tell the story come from their backpacks and would naturally have a relationship with their world, like: kitchen knives, tampons, baby dolls, color guard flags, phones, sports knee pads, etc.
The process of working on the show has been a long one. I have been able to stage it multiple times with many amazing young women who all bring something new and unique to the roles they play. Shakespeare never gets old — we learn new things every time we dive in.
What is your favorite aspect of working with this text and have you had any surprises now that you’re revisiting it for this new staging?
I love the language of the play, and I love working with a company of young women. It’s an exciting process every time.
“Mac Beth” runs at the Frederick Loewe Theater through Feb. 22. The play clocks in at a trim 90 minutes, with no intermission.
Tickets and more information can be found here.
Top Image: Sharlene Cruz, Dylan Gelula and Sophie Kelly-Hedrick as the Witches in Hunter Theater Project's "Mac Beth." Photo: Ahron R. Foster.