GCU theatre delivers thoroughly modern ‘Macbeth’
Story by Lana Sweeten-Shults
Photos by David Kadlubowski
GCU News Bureau
Walking into Ethington Theatre, dominated by a monolithic structure on stage reminiscent of a crown, craggy and cave-like to form the cavernous space of a palace, a witch’s lair, the backdrop of a murder and other settings, you know you’re in for a “Macbeth” like you’ve never seen before.
Director Claude Pensis, Dean of Grand Canyon University’s College of Fine Arts and Production, has yanked “Macbeth” out of its traditional setting in the 11th century and has brushed it off, painted on a shiny coat and dropped it into a Byzantine-meets-Dolce-and-Gabbana kind of Hollywood. Gone are the fur- and cloak-covered Macbeth and Lady Macbeth and left in their place is a celebrity-like, rich, entitled, young, modern crowd in killer high heels and skinny pants.
“Basically, what we have done is we’re setting the play in contemporary times,” Pensis said of the weighty Shakespeare tragedy, which opens during Family Weekend at 7:30 p.m. Friday for a two-weekend run (the first weekend of shows already is sold out). “We’re setting it in a younger set of privileged class.”
Pensis wanted the characters not only to be young but to feast in that high-fashion, self-glorified world. It was a way for him to make the play relatable to a younger audience.
“If you’re doing it (“Macbeth”), setting it in the time period it’s written in, it’s very soldier-esque. It’s all about royalty and aristocracy,” said Rachel Schumacher, a junior theatre student who plays the ambitious Lady Macbeth. “This play takes on the feeling of that, but there’s a sense of rich privilege, though it’s not necessarily deserved.
“They are able to get what they want because they have money. If someone is in my way (as Lady Macbeth), I have money to send somebody to take them out. … I will do whatever I can to get further in life,” Schumacher said.
Pensis and Costume Designer Nola Yergen turned to a Byzantine style of fashion in which to dress the characters, and they took much inspiration from a 2013 Dolce and Gabbana fashion show.
While the women in the play are dressed in beaded evening gowns, glittering high heels and the like, the men don white, hand-painted jackets with mosaic patterns, many with symbols hidden within the pattern, such as a handgun and knives on the jackets of two of the play’s murderers.
Carrying that sense of entitlement further, Pensis said he had to think about how to style the play’s many fight scenes, mapped out by fight choreographer Randy Messersmith.
“We were talking wars, and how does that class war?” Pensis asked. “We kind of came to the conclusion that they don’t war in the same way. They kind of ambush and assassinate.”
And there are multiple murders in “Macbeth” — a half dozen of them — considering what Macbeth does to become king, including murdering King Duncan (Alexander Cavanaugh).
“It’s a bloody play,” said 12-year-old Johnathan Kary, son of theatre instructor Michael Kary, who plays Macduff’s son.
The audience will see blood on the hands of Macbeth (Brandon Caraco) after he murders the king and also on the hands of Lady Macbeth, who handles the murder weapon after her husband’s breakdown.
They also will see that this is a dark play, not only in themes, but in the lighting designed by Pensis.
“The lighting and the fog are my favorites,” Kary said.
Pensis added, “It is very shadowy,” and not just because of the murders.
“It has witches and apparitions and ghosts of the king. The Elizabethans were fascinated by this stuff.”
Kary, who also appeared in GCU’s production of “The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe” in 2014, conceded that this tragedy, living and breathing as it does among all the shadows, is a bit scary.
And the atmosphere doesn’t stop there.
Pensis and team set the mood with some music but also with music-that-isn’t-really-music. The mood is shaped by atmospheric sounds that replicate the wind and other creaks and noises.
And listening to the witches who portend that Macbeth will be king and foresee how “something wicked this way comes,” the audience will hear those voices take on a breathy, eerie tone as they enter a circle of swords in the dirt, GCU theatre’s symbolic version of the witches’ cauldron.
It isn’t the only symbolic thing on stage.
The universal set is a deconstructed crown, Pensis said, though this larger-than-life-size crown isn’t the shiny, glittery symbol of power one would imagine. It’s stony and of-the-earth and suggests maze-like caves and, when the witches occupy the set, a harrowing place no one would care to be.
Pensis said the set, like the costumes, is contemporary, but it is a “symbolic location.”
“Macbeth” fulfills the department’s mission to bring to the stage at least one classical work every year. In 2017-18, the GCU theatre tackled Moliere’s “Tartuffe,” and the year before it was “Two Gentlemen of Verona.”
Although Pensis has studied “Macbeth” many times, he never has performed in or directed the play.
“It’s a very, very complex play, and it is certainly one of Shakespeare’s major works,” he said. “It’s kind of Greek in some ways. Macbeth gets this prediction that he shall be king, and Banquo (Gavin Harris), of course, will be the father of kings.”
What happens after that is a descent into ambition, greed, desire and power.
“That takes over Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. It becomes a self-fulfilling policy,” Pensis said.
Those are all weighty themes for the cast, though for Schumacher, this production’s Lady Macbeth, the weightiness is worth it.
Playing the character is “one of my dream roles,” she said.
“I’m playing her my age. Queen Victoria was deemed queen at 18,” Schumacher said. “I’m not trying to be a Lady Macbeth that has been before.”
She’s a hard character and portraying her could be daunting, so “I tried to take her down to earth a little bit,” she said.
Crew member Caleb Sprenkle, a freshman theatre student, loves the show’s aesthetic — all the light and shadows and its modern bent — but also appreciates the tragedy that is Shakespeare.
“I feel like the audience would love to be able to find themes of a not-so-happy ending. You get to experience what life really is,” he said.
Schumacher added, while some might think Shakespeare too highbrow or too hard to understand or not relatable, “The visual elements, the spectacle of it, is just grand.”
Contact GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults at firstname.lastname@example.org or 602-639-7901. Follow her on Twitter @LanaSweetenShul.
IF YOU GO
What: Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”
Where: Ethington Theatre, GCU campus
When: 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays from Oct. 12 to Oct. 21
Tickets: $12 general admission. Discounted tickets for senior citizens, military personnel, GCU employees and alumni, children 12 years old and younger, and GCU students.
Etc.: Tickets for the opening weekend are sold out, though a few remain for the Oct. 19-21 shows.
Director/lighting designer: Claude Pensis
Scenic designer: William H. Symington
Costume designer: Nola Yergen
Properties and furniture design: Tu Nguyen
Hair/makeup design: Dasha Buchanan and Kayleen Harshbarger
Sound design: Christina McSheffrey
Stage manager: Morgan McCall
Technical director/master electrician: Steven Davis
Fight choreography: Randy Messersmith
Macbeth: Brandon Caraco
Lady Macbeth: Rachel Schumacher
King Duncan: Alexander Cavanaugh
Banquo: Gavin Harris
Macduff: Gustavo Flores
Malcolm: Ryan Ardelt
Witches: Christen McGrath, Amy Kee, Victoria Nay
Ross: Trustin Adams
Lennox: Joel Segraves
Porters/Siward: Micah Larsen
Donalbain: Eric Evans
Fleance: Tyler Sorrels
Angus: Tyler Carroll
Menteith: Christian Bradford
Caithness: Nathan Barnhouse
Murderers: Roberto Viveros, John Wilson and Bukhari King
Lady Macduff: Tarnim Bybee
Macduff’s son: Johnathan Kary
Apparitions: Megan Sutton, Allye Moyer and Samantha Johnson
Seyton: Stefan Achberger
Young Siward: Zaven Ochoa
Captain: Bryce Bronson
Gentlewoman: Halee Conway
Old Man: Brett Angwin