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Just the Players Rework 'Macbeth' for Halloween

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Cast member rehearsing Macbeth - COURTESY OF CHANDLER CENTER FOR THE ARTS
  • Courtesy Of Chandler Center For The Arts
  • Cast member rehearsing Macbeth

Envision Macbeth, a tragic tale of kings, battles and prophecies, instead as a Halloween fête that's going great until somebody turns up dead. That's more or less what Tess Holbrook created. The Bethel-based director has set Shakespeare's famously bloody play at a spooky, modern-day costume party as a way to add a little levity to the murder and madness.

Created for a 21st-century audience living with a pandemic, the production will be staged this Friday, October 30, at the Chandler Center for the Arts in Randolph. Just the Players had originally planned to perform for a limited in-person audience, but, due to rising coronavirus numbers in Vermont, the show will only be livestreamed for viewers at home.

"The audience knows Macbeth," Holbrook said, "and we're also all fully aware of what's going on in our real lives. I can't change Macbeth into Much Ado About Nothing. So instead, [I asked myself], How could I make it feel lighter without insulting the text?"

While the basic plotlines of the play are the same — prophecies, stabbings, revenge and the like — Holbrook has changed the setting from 11th-century Scotland to 2020. Its characters are still competing for a throne, but that seat is atop a social structure, not a kingdom's monarchy.

"Duncan is on top of this social pyramid, and he's the popular guy," Holbrook explained. "And now Macbeth wants to be the popular guy. Instead of winning everyone over with witty jokes and his own personality, he's doing it by murdering people."

Holbrook, 28, has a background in TV and film directing and has worked at the Chelsea Funnery, a youth Shakespeare camp, for 10 years. She said Macbeth is her first foray into a theater project since the beginning of the pandemic in March.

For the Chandler, the show represents a bigger milestone: the first performance of new community theater artists Just the Players. After Karen Dillon became the Chandler's executive director in 2019, she and board president Ramsey Papp launched the group based on requests from the local community. Just the Players held workshops earlier this year, but production plans were quickly derailed by the arrival of the coronavirus.

Actors will remain six feet apart onstage and wear masks. This was part of Holbrook's motivation to set the play at Halloween, as the masks can be incorporated into Halloween costumes. Macbeth's inclusion of witches, ghosts and floating daggers also leant themselves to the new scene. Holbrook described the production as "a dark comedy." Audiences at home are encouraged to dress up in costumes, too.

The cast has only nine performers — another pandemic-related caution. Holbrook said safety was her first priority. The Chandler has been approved to seat 75 in its Main Hall, but the crew decided a week before the show to nix the in-person audience.

"Often in the theater world, people will go, 'The show must go on.' And right now, because of COVID, we are checking in every day going, 'Do we continue? Or do we stop right now, because this show is not worth anyone dying?'" she said.

The performing arts sector has been hit particularly hard during the pandemic. In September, Seven Days reported that Vermont leaders were predicting that up to 45 percent of venues could close permanently by 2021. The Chandler has been one of the first Vermont venues, along with Northern Stage in White River Junction, to reopen for in-person shows with restricted audiences.

Even before going entirely virtual, Holbrook was working to make the show as enjoyable on-screen as it would have been in person.

"What I've tried to do creatively is have the actors perform to the camera," Holbrook said. "[We're] making sure that if you're at home, you're still getting the full image.

"Stay home. Stay in your pajamas," she continued. "Make popcorn. It's going to be great."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Toil and Trouble"

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