Shakespeare: Made in Japan?

The Utah Shakespeare Festival recently performed a touring production of "Macbeth" for Valley students at Higley Center for the Performing Arts

I learned while attending a Shakespeare-in-the-Schools Tour of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” by the Utah Shakespeare Festival that the stilts used by the three witched in this particular production are actually “Air-Trekkers” that originated in Japan.

During a talk back after the show, cast members explained to the 1,200 students in attendance that the use of various props — from ladders to red-colored gloves — reflected the director Christopher Clark’s choice to present the piece “caravan-style” — much like it would have been performed during Shakespeare’s time.

Because there was no fake theatrical blood back then, and the use of real blood in settings like the Higley Center for the Performing Arts is frowned on, various stab wounds “gush forth” with long strips of ragged red cloth.

Low budget. High imagination. The cast noted during the talkback that this is all anyone really needs to perform the works of Shakespeare. There was no Broadway for the Bard, and his work may well be better for it.

Lizabeth and I saw the Utah Shakespeare Festival performance of “Macbeth” last summer — which had an extra layer of drama as rains drenched the outdoor theater just as curtain time approached. We ended up seeing the first act inside, and enjoyed the dark mood set by lingering clouds and rolling thunder once the audience moved back outside.

Lizabeth at one of many Utah Shakespeare Festival "Greenshows" we attended together last summer

Lizabeth first experienced Shakespeare in a summer camp workshop with Arizona’s own Childsplay, when she was still in elementary school.

Her love for Shakespeare blossomed after studying with Maren Mascarelli, a Southern Utah University graduate, at both Arizona School for the Arts and Scottsdale Conservatory Theatre.

Lizabeth has also studied Shakespeare with Randy Messersmith, who heads the theater department at Scottsdale Community College and co-founded the Southwest Shakespeare Company (located in Mesa).

Most recently, she studied Shakepeare in summer classes with the Utah Shakespeare Festival. We’re already making plans to return to the festival this summer to see diverse works ranging from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” to “The Music Man” and “Noises Off!”

A couple of the ten company members taking “Macbeth” on the road this season (including 7 actors in 20 roles) hail from Utah, but plenty of other states are represented. California. Pennsylvania. Iowa. New York.

The company manager for this tour, a high-energy fellow named Joshua (from Juneau), noted during introductory remarks that they’ve performed the piece 75 times so far — before a total audience of 35,000 people.

Higley was just a single stop on their 13-week (Jan to April) tour — which is part of “Shakespeare for a New Generation” — a program funded in part by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Even before the performance could begin, students greeted the company with thunderous applause usually reserved for football games. The show itself was condensed quite effectively from a 3-hour play into an 75-minute work. Applause offered after the final line was uttered and the stage went dark was equally enthusiastic.

Hopefully many of the students who attended "Macbeth" in Higley will make it to Cedar City for some of the eight shows offered between June 23 and Oct 29

The company manager kicked off the talkback by asking students to raise their hands to show which of two possible explanations of Macbeth’s heinous deeds they favored — one blaming the three witches who predict Macbeth’s rise to the throne, or another blaming his ambitious wife.

He then suggested that those who felt Macbeth was responsible for his own actions, and the horrific outcome, raise both hands. This was clearly the explanation favored by most students — though one student with each hypothesis was invited to share his or her reasoning.

The first felt the witches, having initially placed the idea in Macbeth’s head that he would one day be king, caused Macbeth to commit the murder that snowballed into so many acts of disloyalty and destruction.

The second felt Macbeth alone was responsible, because he made his own choices about how to act on the information pesented to him. The third felt the wife was responsible — because she “messed with his head” and “insulted his manhood.”

Their remarks leave no doubt that Shakespeare, though made in England and performed with ideas and implements from around the globe, is perfectly relevant in 21st century America — where struggles related to love, power and justice seem never to die.

— Lynn

Note: Click here to learn about upcoming productions and school programs of the Southwest Shakespeare Company in Mesa. Click here for information about The Shakespeare Society of Japan. Click here to read a CNN article with tips for helping Japan in the aftermath of today’s devastating natural disaster.

Coming up: Art adventures: Japanese Friendship Garden, “Beastly” meets “Rango”

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