The imperfect, handheld camera footage that made 1999’s “The Blair Witch Project” such a compelling horror film has inspired the Underlings Theatre Company’s new production of “Macbeth.”
“‘Macbeth’ was a kind of horror movie for Elizabethan audiences,” says Daniel Thomas Blackwell, who directs the Underlings production that runs April 5-13 at the Mosesian Center for the Arts Black Box in Watertown. “Plots to kill the king were fresh in the minds of Shakespeare’s audiences, since it had only been a year since the Gunpowder Plot was uncovered.”
Shakespeare’s fast-paced and oh-so-bloody tale of blind ambition depends on the title character’s conviction that nothing will get in the way of a prophecy that he will be king. The single-minded determination of Macbeth and his wife drive a tragedy infused throughout with ghosts, magic, and murder.
The intensity is amplified, says Blackwell, by the intimate setting of the Black Box at the Mosesian Center for the Arts, and the ensemble cast of just six actors playing all the roles.
“We are working with projection designer Elizabeth Gove to create found footage the characters discover,” he says. “We are being careful to make sure all of these videos are unique and specific and fit into the world of the play. They are either filmed during the course of the play and screened live or recorded ahead of time in rehearsal.”
The footage, says Blackwell, adds to the story’s claustrophobic atmosphere. “When you only see one character’s perspective, but you know something is going on just behind the camera’s view, it draws out the tension and adds to the paranoia,” he says.
The videos include the three weird sisters taking selfies and live shots as their cauldron bubbles and Lady Macbeth watching a vlog of her husband’s letter to her in which he reveals the witches’ prophecy.
“Since high school, I’ve been told that Shakespeare’s stories are universal,” says Blackwell, “but the way we have been presenting them — straight, white, and male — is not good enough.”
Blackwell, 27, and Lelaina Vogel, 24, cofounded Underlings Theatre Company just two years ago, focusing on producing classic texts within a contemporary context or new work that is classically inspired. The company made its debut in September 2017 with just two performances of a new work, “Ada, Soon,” followed by “Romeo and Juliet,” performed in its original pronunciation, but set in a 1980s high school; “The Tour,” about a guide and a pilgrim who visit ancient ruins just before they will be destroyed by ISIS; and “What Rough Beast,” about the impact of a controversial right-wing speaker’s appearance at a progressive college.
“We need to welcome audiences and actors who are not traditional so that we can tell their stories,” says Blackwell. “We’re interested in gender equity in all its forms.”
For “Macbeth,” women and non-binary performers comprise the cast of six. “Cassie Foote and Olivia Caputo performed in a reading we did last year and they had great chemistry together,” Blackwell says. “We knew casting them as Macbeth (Foote) and Lady Macbeth (Caputo), the audience would immediately feel their connection to each other and the way they egg each other on.”
Starting a theater company is a Herculean task, but Blackwell says he and Vogel knew what they were getting into. The company’s name comes from a line from “Julius Caesar”: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.”
“Lelaina and I wanted the company to elevate the stories of people traditionally viewed as underlings to the stage,” says Blackwell.
A Breaking Ground Festival trio
The year’s Huntington Theatre Company Breaking Ground Festival features work by three popular Massachusetts playwrights, with plays focusing on intriguing and unexpected subjects. The festival, which runs April 12-14, offers audiences a chance to see these works in staged readings in the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts.
First up is Brenda Withers’s “The Kritik” (April 12, 8 p.m.). Directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel, it’s a send-up of a provincial theater critic’s attempt at honesty, set in the world of Anton Chekhov’s brutally funny 19th-century Russia. Next (April 13, 8 p.m.), Megan Sandberg-Zakian directs “Mr. Parent,” co-written by playwright Melinda Lopez and actor Maurice Emanuel Parent about Parent’s own experiences as a teacher in the Boston public schools system. Finally, Rebecca Bradshaw directs MJ Halberstadt’s “Deal Me Out” (April 14, 7 p.m.), which traces the awkward conversations that ensue when friendships clash with firmly held beliefs.
Readings are free and open to the public, but advance reservation is required. RSVP at www.huntington
Parting Company One
Sarah Shampnois, one of the founders of Company One Theatre, is stepping down after 20 years. In a statement, Shampnois said, “I was just out of school, 22 years old when we started C1, so being a part of this organization has been a major part of my life. I am so proud of the work we’ve accomplished — in particular, of the ways we’ve engaged new audiences, worked with so many students, and helped put some incredible art out into the world.” During her time as managing director, Company One grew to a nationally recognized company that has presented more than 80 productions, serving 15,000 students and 100,000 audience members. Karthik Subramanian, the organization’s current business and production manager, has been named interim managing director.
Presented by the Underlings Theatre Company. At the Mosesian Center for the Arts Black Box, Watertown, April 5-13. Tickets $17-$22, 617-923-8487, www.underlingstheatre.comTerry Byrne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.