We are in the magnificent New York University Skirball Broadway-inspired theater built underground on LaGuardia Place in New York’s Greenwich Village, just steps from Washington Square Park. We’re waiting as the SITI company assembles to deliver this evening’s performance inspired by the superb radio plays of Orson Welles. One is drawn to reflect on Welles’ War of the Worlds (1939 ) radio play that universally captivated audiences.
War of the Worlds is known for its remarkable depiction of aliens from Mars invading New Jersey, which terrorized listeners who believed the invasion to be factual. This performance by the SITI Company of Macbeth is a tribute to the genre of radio plays that once compelled listeners to suspend their disbelief to an unmitigated level, whereas people were injured while protecting themselves from a space invasion.
Radio Macbeth was a multi-dimensional experience. The ensemble arrived in 1939 garb to act the parts of Shakespeare’s 1623 Macbeth for a radio show performance. They exist in 1939 and do not notice us peering into a place and moment that existed 83 years ago.
As if to remind us that this is a radio play and not 17th-century Scotland, we are occasionally drawn back by witnessing the sometimes-idiosyncratic behavior of the radio studio cast. They nap, drink coffee, sit around a table to eat, and rehearse the play, replete with stage cues.
As the cast masterfully characterized Shakespeare’s saturnine work, we were inexorably drawn into the portentous tale. Supporting the account were the dim penumbra of macabre images, a panoply of sounds effects, striking musical soundscapes, the intense angular stage blocking of secondary characters in many scenes, and the gloom of a Scottish deid bell that either sought orisons or repelled evil spirits. I thought of Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, John Donne’s words “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee,” or Wilfred Owens’ “What passing-bells for these who die as cattle.”
Macbeth is a shocking sordid tale of ambition, guilt, murder, ghosts, superstition, tyranny, and revenge. And although Macbeth is a Scottish general prophesied by three witches to be king, there are to be no swords, royal trappings, or steaming pots of witches’ brew in the radio studio or on stage.
The SITI’s performance of Macbeth was a celebration of the English language and the art of the bard. The cast ably embodied, expressed, and maintained the complex dimensions, texts, and references. Special mention is due to Kelly Maurer for her spine-tingling characterizations as Weird Sisters and Lady MacDuff, Steven Duff Webber as the ambitious but doomed Macbeth, and Ellen Lauren as the frightening, ruthless, and conniving Lady Macbeth.
Co-Directed by Anne Bogart and Darron L. West
Created and Performed by the SITI Company
Adapted from the Play by William Shakespeare
The SITI Company (in alphabetical order)
Akiko Aizawa as Angus, Fleance, Lennox, and Ensemble
Will Bond as Duncan, Macduff, and Ensemble
Gian-Murray Gianino as Ross, Donalbain, and Ensemble
Ellen Lauren as Lady Macbeth
Kelly Maurer as Weird Sisters, Lady Macduff, and Ensemble
Barney O’Hanlon as Banquo, Malcolm, and Ensemble
Stephen Duff Webber as Macbeth
Leon Ingulsrud as Understudy
Set and Costume Design by James Schuette
Lighting Design by Brian H. Scott
Soundscape by Darron L. West
Dramaturgy by J. Ed Araiza
Assistant Director Tiffani Swalley
Production Stage Manager Ellen M. Lavaia
Michelle Preston SITI Executive Director
Megan E. Carter SITI Producing Director
Runtime: 1 hour and 45 minutes with no intermission
SITI Company Concludes its Finale Season with Radio Play Tour
Radio Macbeth at NYU Skirball, Oct 19-22
War of the Worlds – The Radio Play at Laurie Beechman Theatre at the Westbank Cafe, Oct 26–Nov 5
A Christmas Carol at Fisher Center, Dec 16-18
Tickets and Information at Siti.org.