In the chilly air of an October night, 65 people stand anxiously shoulder-to-shoulder in front of a blank stage that hit the front row mid-chest. Behind them sit others in green lawn chairs that rise with the amphitheater. Those standing feel their feet ache and all are shivering yet no one seems to mind. They have all been transported back to Elizabethan England to enjoy Shakespeare the way it was originally enjoyed.
At the Castle Theater in Provo, the Grassroots Shakespeare Company opened their production of “Macbeth” on Monday, Oct. 17 to a sold out crowd. The GSC, founded over two years ago by Alex Ungerman and Mark Oram, both students at the time, perform the works of Shakespeare as they were originally performed. This means the cast began working on Macbeth two weeks before opening night. Each cast member was responsible for his or her costumes and props, with several cast members playing multiple roles. The actors perform on a bare stage except for an occasional bench. The only major difference is the GSC allows women to act on stage, a practice that was strictly forbidden in Shakespeare’s day.
What really sets a GSC production apart from other Shakespeare and theater productions in general is the fact that the audience is not only expected to be extremely involved in the play but also encouraged to do so. The moment Macbeth, played by Eric D. Geels, entered the stage, the audience burst into shouts of joy. When Macbeth was about to kill King Duncan, played by Leviticus Brown, audience members shouted, nearly pleading with Macbeth not to do it. Any embrace between Macbeth and his wife, played by Heather Murdock was accompanied by awes from the audience.
Most of the cries and cheers came from the members in what they called the yard. Affectionately referred to as the “groundlings,” these spectators stood in front of the stage for the length of the play, most limping off with sore feet at the conclusion. It is this level of personal involvement that elevates a GSC production to an almost magical level. At the end of the play when Macduff, played by Cameron Bench, was engaged in hand to hand combat with Macbeth, the audience broke into chants of Macduff’s name, not because everyone else was doing it but because they truly wanted Macduff to succeed.
There was a palpable camaraderie amongst the cast members that added to the richness of the production. There were no attempts at showboating or stage hogging. Rather, each member of the cast was regarded as essential to the overall production. This was most keenly portrayed in Zoe Wilde’s performance of the Porter. While only on stage for a few minutes delivering a monologue of sorts, Wilde stole the scene with her dedication to the part. She was both clever and intriguing, devoting herself fully to the comedic relief her character provided. At the end of her speech, she asks the audience to “remember the porter,” a request that was easily granted after Wilde’s performance.
It is obvious the company enjoys what they do and aren’t afraid to have a bit of fun. When Macbeth hires three men to murder Banquo and his son, played by Nick Grossaint and Lily Hye Soo Dixon-Geels, respectively, Robbie X. Pierce, Jordan Kramer and Wes “Milosh” Tolman enter, each wearing a black t-shirt with the words “Murderer 1,” “Murderer 2” and “Murderer 3” written on them. It was jokes like these that kept the audience laughing in between the serious lines.
However, the cast was mindful of the tragic aspects of the Scottish Play. In the scene where Macduff discovers his wife and children have been killed, the anguish on Bench’s face quickly silenced the crowd as each heart broke along with Macduff’s.
Bench’s raw, unashamed emotion was a stark contrast to the clever silliness in other parts of the play but neither detracted from the other. Each cast member was incredibly talented, exercising his or her craft with precision, honesty and skill. Though still only in its early years, the Grassroots Shakespeare Company has risen to be one of the most profound and talented acting groups in Utah Valley, if not the entire state.
“Macbeth” runs from Oct. 17-31 at the Castle Amphitheatre. Each performance starts at 8 p.m. Tickets are on sale on the Grassroots Shakespeare Company’s website.
By Kelly Cannon