Macbeth in the Shakespeare Garden

We found out at the last minute Wednesday that the Alabama Shakespeare Festival (ASF) would be having a special performance of Macbeth that very night. Outside! As a benefit! We immediately changed plans and decided to go. Because, well, Macbeth! Outside!

The show didn’t disappoint. First, there was the revelation of the Shakespeare Garden. We’ve been out to ASF many times, but didn’t know that behind those big wooden gates, there is a beautiful garden stocked with various plants named in Shakespeare plays. It’s a beautiful facility, with a few large beds prefacing a nice little amphitheater.

The night we went was warm and still. We brought a blanket for sitting, but were perfectly comfortable on the tiered stone and grass steps. In the back, up above the steps, a few people had set up tailgating-style chairs near the cash bar and the Dreamland table selling food. Although we eyed the banana pudding, we didn’t buy anything. We were there for the theater. As Jon Lovitz would say on Saturday Night Live, “Acting!”

The play had been shortened to an hour, we learned, because it was part of an ASF program that takes the play to Alabama schools. The idea is very clever – the company (composed of young actors interning at ASF) travels to schools and performs the play in one period, staying to talk with students in a second period. This year, evidently, the company’s traveled to twelve schools. Next year, the company will similarly adapt and perform A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Educators  interested in bringing the play to their school can contact ASF for more information about this process, but based on what we saw last week, it’s a great idea with superb execution. The director (Greta Lambert) and her cast edited and performed the play in a way that is likely to captivate the imagination of 11 year olds as much as folks seven or eight times that age.

The staging itself was stripped down and minimal – a few benches served as resting places for inactive actors, staging grounds for sound effects ranging from drumming to eerie screaming, and props when needed in active scenes. A small company switched roles, often using just a piece of cloth and a scary grimace to complete the transition from soldier to witch. The amphitheater carried sound very well, especially on a still night, so even in the back row we felt very immersed in the play. Some of us, like the guy next to us in the Stone Cold Steve Austin T-shirt, were so immersed that they ooh-ed and grunted during the fight scenes.

Unfortunately, despite the ASF’s name, they don’t perform Shakespeare as much as we’d like (we’re particularly keen on the tragedies, not as much on the comedies). Recent years have seen them increasingly stage and market folksy Southern-themed stuff like Moonlight and Magnolias, or the Bear Bryant play. Not that there’s anything wrong with those, but we’d much rather seem some stuff written by, you know, Shakespeare.

Spoiler alerts: The intern company did a great job with Macbeth, from the death of Banquo to the “last syllable of recorded time” part of the classic “tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” monologue. The cast really nailed the parts that are key for getting the attention of the kids in the schools they performed in front of, especially the witches. The variations in cadence gave new menacing life to the old “double, double, toil and trouble” chanting.

All in all, the play re-energized our feelings about the ASF, which many long-time residents of Montgomery are likely to be fully taking for granted. There has been a lot of complaining in recent years about how ASF is (as of 2009) no longer home to its legendary Masters of Fine Arts acting program in partnership with the University of Alabama. But if this performance of Macbeth is any indication of anything, the folks in charge of ASF still care a great deal about good theater and are doing the best they can to not only train a new crop of actors, but to export theater out into surrounding communities and enrich the lives of all of us in search of a greater aesthetic experience.

Kate and Stephen are Midtown residents with a cat, a dog, a garden, an old house and a sense of adventure. They write about life in Midtown here and about life in Montgomery at their blog Lost in Montgomery.

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