Tuesday, November 10, 2009

MacBeth (feature article)

In the normal course of events, a director decides on a show, then works with a set designer to bring this vision of the production to life.

For those who work on a university campus, things can be much easier.

Studio 301, a student-run drama organization, produced 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' last year. Rather than find and decorate a stage, the company mounted the production in the Arboretum: an actual forest for the play's forest setting.

Such decisions cut production costs considerably.

This year, directors Stephanie Hankinson and Gia Batista knew they wanted to direct 'a' play, but weren't sure which one. An idea began to form when they started looking around the UC Davis Social Sciences and Humanities Building. It's commonly known as the 'Death Star' because of its outwardly shiny metallic appearance, as well as the fact that architecturally it's such a maze.

The glassed-in catwalk between the two center wings just begs for a lightsaber duel.

Hankinson and Batista didn't see outer space; they saw a castle, and immediately decided that Studio 301's next production should be 'Macbeth.' They're using the entire building, placing the witches on a balcony overlooking the action throughout the play, and employing the tower for sword fights.

The tall concrete walls are excellent screens for special effects, and corridors that lead off the main 'stage' area are ideal for echo-y sounds of horror.

Curtain times are 7 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday; 6 p.m. Sunday; 7 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, Nov. 18-21; and 6 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 22.

The suggested donation at the gate will be $10 general, $9 students. For additional information, call (818) 251-6654.

Michael Lutheran, who plays MacDuff, is delighted with the location. He feels that it both works beautifully as a castle, and also conveys Macbeth's descent into madness.

'This building is so confusing, people get lost in it all the time,' Lutheran said, 'so it kind of represents Macbeth's state of mind.'

Setting a play 'in' an outside venue that is part of a working university building presents interesting situations.

'We get people passing through all the time,' Lutheran laughed. 'We'll be in the middle of an intense scene or sword fight, and all of a sudden a class gets out and we have to hold.'

Cawing crows fly overhead at dusk, and the sound of campus bells must be dealt with. The directors don't feel these will be serious problems; they may, in fact, add to the ambiance.

The production also worked with instructors skilled in the Asian hakido style of combat, which should add an extra layer of excitement to the fight scenes.

Cody Messick is finding it a challenge to play Lady Macbeth.

'I've grown up with Shakespeare, because my dad has been the artistic director of the Kern County Shakespeare Festival for 25 years. But I'm usually cast as the sort of sweeter, straight character, so it's different and really challenging to play such an evil character.'

Even bad characters have their good side, though, Messick believes.

'I'm trying to find sympathy and the humanity in this woman, who really is hard to relate to, because she gives herself over to evil. She devotes herself to this murder and all this horrible stuff, but it's beautiful to try to find those places that actually come from pain, and a deep love for her husband.'

Sarah Cohen, who cut her teeth on Shakespeare back in 1994, when she played Antonio in Acme Theater's 'Twelfth Night,' is playing Duncan. The directors felt that making the ruler a woman adds another layer to the production.

'It actually makes it interesting, killing a queen, because it would be Lady Macbeth who would be the next queen,' Batista said.

'And Lady Macbeth actually incites the murder,' Hankinson added, 'so what does it mean to kill a queen, if she's going to be queen next?'

Cohen, who jokes that playing a queen fits her body type better than playing the role of a king, graduated from MIT in 2000 and returned to Davis to direct a Shakespeare play. She has remained on campus ever since, working in Disability Services.

Hankinson feels that this is one of the many good things about Studio 301: It welcomes alumni and faculty, as well as students.

'We have a really wide array: two majors, several minors in theater and people who have graduated from the theater department. It's a pretty good mix.'

Studio 301 has been around, in different forms, for about 15 years. It started in Sacramento as an independent theater company, with a couple of Davis students involved. More Davis folks got involved, and eventually the group moved to the UCD campus and was 'legitimized' by the powers that be.

These days, Studio 301 is a UC Davis club and is run completely by students.

'We do all our fundraising,' Hankinson said.

The group has been on campus for 12 years, with a few breaks here and there.

'Now we have a couple of really solid years under our belts, and I think it can be maintained,' Hankinson said.

While watching these actors rehearse, I note a high degree of energy and enthusiasm. This should bode well for a good production.

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