Slapstick Shakespeare

When amateurs play amateurs doing Macbeth, hilarity ensues.

You may think you know Macbeth. Orson Welles’ voodoo fantasia. The recent film Scotland, PA with Christopher Walken as health nut Detective MacDuff, investigating the mysterious death of Mr. Duncan, who owned a burger joint until an employee decided on a lethal spot of self-promotion. The CalShakes version from a few years ago, or last year’s modern-dress Impact version. But until you’ve seen The Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen’s Guild Dramatic Society’s Production of Macbeth, now opening the Masquers Playhouse’s fiftieth annversary season. you haven’t really felt all the suspense, all the treachery, all the sheer agony. Or the deep silliness.

TFAHETGDSPM is David McGillivray and Walter Zerlin Jr.’s breakneck 1976 romp, complete with a stuffed shark, a batty critic, and Banquo’s ghost represented by a woman in a paint-splattered sheet riding a tea trolley and repeatedly knocking over the feast table. The authors sat down and thought of every possible thing that could go wrong in a community theater production, and a few impossible ones as well, doubtless rubbing their hands together in glee like the Wyrd Sisters (the three witches who prophesy the mad thane’s rise and eventual downfall). And then they inflicted every single one on the hapless Farndalians, a group of proper British clubwomen who have taken their production to some sort of competition they appear doomed to lose. Think Noises Off meets Waiting for Guffman set in the ’60s and you start to get the picture.

Speaking of weird sisters, you can tell a lot about a Macbeth by the witches. Here one of them is played by “Katherine Parry-Jones” (Jan Brown, who resembles the skinny Roseanne, if Roseanne could do an outrageous Scottish accent where every R is rolled eight or nine times before being released), who we learn has suffered a mishap on the way to the theater. She would have been better off staying home; she starts out navigating the “blasted heath” on crutches, and ends up playing MacDuff at the end from a wheelchair, wrapped in more bandages than Claude Rains. Another witch is wearing her fake nose on her chin and loses her glasses at inopportune times. The third, young “Felicity Wheal,” is completely mod in big triangular ’60-style earrings that really set off the pointy hat. None of which is immediately obvious because the set has been put on the stage backward, and the play-within-the-play begins with the actors’ backs to the audience.

The play-outside-the-play begins with director Phoebe Reece (“Shakespeare’s on a par with Noel Coward!”), played by Jo Lusk, attempting to introduce the play as the lighting technicians screw up every single cue. Lusk does some wonderful eye-flicky things while this is going on; keeping the rest of her face perfectly still, she uses her eyes and pursed lips to convey volumes — all of them disapproving. But then, there’s so much to disapprove of here — besides the backward set, and the light cues, and actors not showing up, or not having voices, or inadvertently dragging a KFC bucket onstage stuck to the train of a gown, or crashing into set pieces, each other, and what sounds like a great big box of broken glass backstage … it just doesn’t let up for two increasingly funny hours, as the cast flails its way through “a highly individual production” of Shakespeare’s tragedy. Having an idea of the Macbeth story in advance might help, but then again, understanding what’s going on is completely beside the point. This is slapstick Shakespeare.

Theater legend has it that you’re not supposed to say “Macbeth” in the theater unless you’re onstage and in character, and there’s a reason for that: tragedy seems to befall someone associated with the production whenever this happens. In this case, the Farndale stage manager Henry — who resembles the robot C3PO in unspeakably hideous plaid pants — says the name aloud before the play starts, and the woman who is supposed to play Lady Macbeth takes a wrong turn and ends up in another town. So Henry has to step in and take her part, giving the “unsex me” speech completely new meaning as he clutches his nonexistent breasts through a groovy medieval muumuu in bright orange, yellow, olive, brown, and red paisley. Henry has most, but not all of the lines, and stalls out on the handwashing scene, which leads to a funny bit between the doctor and the lady-in-waiting trying to cue him by repeating their lines over and over, faster and faster. Lady Macbeth’s husband is played by Deidre Green as Thelma DuBain as Macbeth, clearly the clubwoman with the greatest delusions of grandeur. “Don’t crumple the fabric; these were my best curtains,” she hisses to someone stroking her costume. She is the only Farndalian who seems to be taking the play seriously — too seriously. Green’s DuBain plays Macbeth without the slightest shred of doubt or remorse, and has clearly been waiting years to cut loose that death scene.

By the end of the first act, the cast is getting pretty banged up, and pretty cranky. So when a cream pie turns up in the raffle, it’s just a matter of time before someone gets a meringue facial. That’s really what the whole play is like; escalating weirdness, all the way up to the point where the critic who is supposed to be judging the performance comes onstage in drag and praises the show for things like its “clever but unsettling use of darkness.” Known for his radio drama, a fifteen-part dramatization of Sir Robert Walpole’s letters to his wigmaker, Mr. Peach wakes up at one point to note, “I was having a dream. The drama critic’s worst nightmare: watching amateurs do Macbeth.”

But then there’s watching amateurs do a spoof of Macbeth, and that makes all the difference. Only then do we get disco witches in pink sequins, Birnam Wood coming to Dunsany in the form of two potted plants and a Christmas tree, and the most deliberate upstaging you can imagine. The Farndale ladies bring it all home to the Masquers in this nutty, fun show.

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