Preview: Macbeth: Walking Shadows

MACBETH: WALKING SHADOWS by William Shakespeare, directed by Brendan McMurtry-Howlett, puppetry director Zach Fraser, with Alexander Crowther, Tara Koehler, Andrew.


MACBETH: WALKING SHADOWS by William Shakespeare, directed by Brendan McMurtry-Howlett, puppetry director Zach Fraser, with Alexander Crowther, Tara Koehler, Andrew Joseph Richardson, Kaitlyn Riordan, Kaitlin Morrow and Seann Murray. Presented by Shakespeare in the Ruff at Withrow Park (south of Danforth, between Logan and Carlaw). In previews through Monday (August 17), opens Wednesday (August 19) and runs to August 30, Wednesday-Monday 7:30 pm. Pwyc, sugg $15. shakespeareintheruff.com, brownpapertickets.com.

Alexander Crowther never figured, when he thought about the Shakespeare roles hed play, that his Macbeth would involve a wooden arm and a large mask.

But in the inventive Shakespeare in the Ruffs adaptation of the Scottish play renamed Macbeth: Walking Shadows puppets are central, the actors visible behind the inanimate objects used to create the characters.

A few years ago, Ruffs artistic director, Brendan McMurtry-Howlett, appeared as the sole live actor in a fine show called And Stockings For The Ladies… he was joined by several puppets created by Zach Fraser. The collaboration was so successful that the director invited Fraser to work with him on this Shakespearean adaptation.

As we talk, Crowther, who appeared with McMurtry-Howlett in a production of A Midsummer Nights Dream, brings up the directors suggestion that Macbeth is someone who has to keep working for something and feels driven without having the time or space to consider what hes doing.

That unthinking drive happens even more after the killing of Duncan, whom Macbeth replaces on the throne. The task list gets longer and there are so many things that have to be addressed. Theres an exhaustion that goes with that, and working with the puppet elements parallels for me what Macbeth goes through later in the play.

Crowther demonstrates what he means, one arm holding an extended puppet arm out to his side, the other clutching a larger-than-life mask in front of his face.

Theres a lot of work in the wrists, and the movement and way we use the masks depends a lot on angles: whether the character is looking up, down or to the side. The puppets movement in space, fast or slow, sharp or gentle, becomes a way of articulating the action.

The audience can see how a character reacts by how something hits the puppet, whether the reaction is quick or not, a rapid explosion or a slow burn. These kinds of movement are the tools and paints were learning to work with.

How to tell the story of Macbeth and his lady has always been central to the company, for of course they have the Bards words as their starting point.

At first it was counter-intuitive to have that magnificent language and then find another means of expression. But the adaptation by Brendan and Andrew Joseph Richardson has essentialized whats important. Sometimes the image of what the puppet can reveal through movement trumps the text, and weve decided what needs to be said and what can be expressed through the puppets actions.

Rehearsals have been about refining which element to use and finding increasingly subtle gestures to tell the story.

Frasers been working with the company from the start he created the puppets as rehearsals progressed.

Zach came in with five faces, unsure which would go with which character, and the development of the puppet elements has been organic. Hes used tree branches, found objects, string and bone, all of which suit the natural setting in which were performing.

(If youve seen previous Shakespeare in the Ruff shows, note that the company isnt working in the usual space between two regal trees for Macbeth, theyre up the hill behind that area, in a woodsy setting.)

Zachs creations for the main characters are hands and faces, but the supporting roles are played by simpler puppets with less formed segments. For instance, there are a series of noblemen made from crutches, who move differently because theyre each a single stick.

Crowther whos appeared in Lady Julie and, as a member of the Howland Company, 52 Pick-Up gets more range in the title role.

Sometimes it feels like Im part of a full-body puppet, my legs articulating the rest of the figure. Were moving back and forth in terms of where the focus is, whether the audience should be looking at the puppet elements or the full body when the latter occurs, its like the camera lens goes wide.

The gestures with just the puppet elements are simpler. Sometimes the stroke of a mask by a wooden hand is all we get to inform the viewers of characters’ closeness, intimacy or sensuality. That external gesture manifests an internal thought.

Working outside always presents problems in terms of distractions and holding the audiences attention.

Yes, there are lots of potential disruptions in Withrow Park, mainly kids running around and dogs barking. Our energy has to be broader and, especially before the stage lights come up, we have to assert that we own the space in the midst of a grove of trees. We have to draw on our actors training for the power of projection and articulation.

The rehearsals sometimes draw youngsters from the nearby playground, who drop everything to watch whats going on.

They look fascinated at what were doing, smiles Crowther, and their parents seem quite happy for them to be our audience. Well, at least until the action becomes too violent, and then the parents take them away.

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