by CHRIS ROGERS
Forget Tarantino. The original masterpiece of murder, ambition, and calamity — William Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” — is coming to Winona as the Great River Shakespeare Festival (GRSF) kicks off its summer season.
The play begins innocently enough. Macbeth and Banquo have helped the Scottish king win a great battle, but when some eery witches whisper in the warriors’ ears that great fortune is coming their way — and some of their prophesies come true — Macbeth slowly slides into a murderous quest to realize the witches’ most alluring predictions and prevent the prophesies he fears.
GRSF Props Supervisor Ivy Thomas’ background working in haunted houses came in handy for her work to produce the severed heads that set the backdrop for what comes next. She layered foam, leather, melted plastic, paint, and fake blood on store-bought skulls to create the illusion of skin, neck fat, and ligaments still clinging to the heads. “When someone walks through the door and says, ‘That’s gross,’ I know I’ve got it,” Thomas said.
When Winonan Carrie Heckman saw GRSF’s call for auditions and tried to sell her young sons on trying out — wouldn’t that be cool? — she was met with an apathetic “meh” and a bored “nah.”
“But then I said, ‘You could be killed onstage,’” Heckman explained. The boys asked breathlessly, “Really?”
Oscar Heckman, 13, and his brother Sergio, 10, play the sons of Macduff, Macbeth’s one-time friend turned rival. “We come and tell our mom [Lady Macduff] that our dad has disappeared,” Oscar explained. Sergio finished his brother’s sentence: “And then some murderers come in and kill us all.”
The boys even have a fight scene. “We get fake swords and we try to kill the murderers with them, but it doesn’t work,” Sergio explained. Oscar said, “[Our characters] are pretty bad at fighting with the swords.” Sergio interjected, “Well, to be fair, we’re only children.”
Sergio loved the fight choreography and learning some tricks to safely sell his death to the audience. He had pity for actors with less exciting roles. “Some of the parts you don’t even get to get murdered or fight,” Sergio said. “Those parts you just talk, and it’s probably not as fun.”
“The kids dying onstage are having the time of their lives,” GRSF actor Benjamin Boucvalt said. Another child, a girl, gets murdered in the play, and she is dragged offstage screaming. “She’s getting good at it,” Boucvalt said of the young actress. For her, it’s a blast, but for everyone else it is a bit traumatic, he explained. “The other actors who have to watch these kids die — we’re kind of in the wings with our hands on our knees like, ‘Ugh,’” Boucvalt groaned.
“It never occurred to me that it would be emotionally difficult for me to watch my children be killed because it was just this funny thing,” Carrie Heckman said. She had seen the boys rehearse their fight scene a dozen times at half speed. Then she watched it at full speed, with costumes, dramatic lighting, and tragic music, and saw Macduff (GRSF actor Christopher Gerson) react to the terrible news that his sons had been slain. “It was really intense … Watching the family mourn the kids — I cried,” Carrie said.
Boucvalt’s character Banquo is one of the play’s early victims. An honest friend, Banquo tries to warn Macbeth not to obsess over the witches’ predictions. “Let’s remember where this information came from,” Boucvalt explained. It is no use. Macbeth probes Banquo: Will he be loyal? By that Macbeth means, will Banquo be an accomplice to murder? “[Macbeth] is asking me, ‘Hey, if things go down, can you be there for me?’” Boucvalt explained. “And I say, ‘Absolutely, as long it is honorable and just,’ which is not the answer he wants.”
An increasingly paranoid Macbeth sends hitmen to kill Banquo and his son. The great swordsman fights through multiple stab wounds to buy his son time to escape before the murderers finally slit his throat. How does Boucvalt sell that violent end to the audience? “In all stage fights, the person who sells the fight isn’t the person who’s winning the fight. It’s the person who loses,” the actor said. “For me, I need to draw the audience’s attention and their eye to the [body] part that’s getting hit,” he stated. At one point, the cutthroats slice Banquo’s leg behind the knee. “Once the knife goes, all the audience needs or is wondering is, what happened? Where were you cut?” Boucvalt explained. He needs to attract their attention to his wounded leg. “So all my body needs to be whipped around … when the cut happens, there needs to be a huge jolt and a turn only from my knee,” Boucvalt explained.
As for actually playing dead once Banquo falls, “The trick is always — and it’s so hard to do, especially in fights like this — is to control your breathing, because after that you don’t want someone’s stomach [heaving],” Boucvalt explained. That is hard because the fight requires a lot of exertion and Banquo yells with all the strength his lungs can muster for his son to run. After all that, Boucvalt needs to keep his chest still. “A lot of it is getting into a position where you can’t see my breathing, and a lot of it is finding a way to keep your ribs expanded so you can breathe — because you’re going to need to breathe, especially after a fight like that,” the actor added.
After Banquo’s death, the cutthroats drag Boucvalt offstage by his arms. For that, Boucvalt explained he has to keep his limbs relaxed like a dead person’s would be but engage his shoulder muscles — to keep the other actors from pulling his shoulder out of its socket — and his core, to make it a little easier for them to drag him. “We’re dead onstage a lot,” the Shakespeare festival veteran said. “So it takes this practice of finding this relaxation but, yet, this active relaxation.”
“Macbeth” opens next Saturday, June 29, with preview performances this Tuesday and Thursday. GRSF’s season includes Shakespeare’s “Cymbeline” — opening on Sunday, June 30 — and several other plays, including modern plays and performances where some of the action is not scripted at all. There will be lectures from visiting experts, pre-show talks, a fun run, and more special events. For more information, visit ww.grsf.org.