Playhouse will put the horror on stage

By Milan Paurich

Multihyphenate Michael Dempsey continues to seek out the type of challenges that would make most community theater directors quake in their heels.

After last spring’s triumphant production of the musical “Curtains,” Dempsey returns to the Youngstown Playhouse stage as both director and star of William Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.”

In a recent interview, Dempsey discussed the particular challenges of helming “the Scottish Play,” and what sort of tricks he has up his sleeve for jaded audiences who mistakenly pooh-pooh Shakespeare as “boring” or old hat.

Q. Why “Macbeth,” and why now?

A. Last year, Executive Director Mary Ruth Lynn asked the play-reading committee to pick a bold 2010-11 season that would signal the Playhouse’s return and attract new audiences. I said, “How about ‘Macbeth’?” They said, “Oh, you’d need a director who really knows Shakespeare.” And I said, “What about me?” I detailed my Shakespearean training with the National Theater of Great Britain and the Royal Shakespeare Company—the two theaters which have produced the leading Shakespearean actors and directors of our day. I guess it sold them. “Macbeth” is Shakespeare’s shortest and easiest to understand tragedy, and to my mind, the most exciting. And because it has so many supernatural elements, it was perfect for the Playhouse’s “Halloween slot.”

Q. Could you give us a thumbnail sketch of the plot for readers who might need to brush up on their Shakespeare?

A. Macbeth is a Scottish lord who’s just won a great battlefield victory against rebels. He comes across three witches who prophesize that one day he will become king. This ignites a terrible ambition in him and his wife, and they decide to take matters into their own hands. Their murder of good King Duncan unleashes an escalating tide of violence, guilt, paranoia and madness that ultimately destroys them.

Q. You’ve made it clear this isn’t going to be your grandfather’s “Macbeth.” What would you say to prospective ticket-buyers who might be intimidated by Shakespeare?

A. Many people’s first experience with Shakespeare is either in English class, or with bad productions that fail to make the story come alive. But Shakespeare didn’t write poetry in an ivory tower. In addition to the brilliant language and complex characters, he spiced things up with plenty of action, sex and intrigue. Purists will hate me, but I’ve done some inter-cutting where multiple things are happening at the same time. It helps break up longer scenes and keeps the audience on their toes. And the show’s brisk, energetic pace will bring its run time in at around two hours.

Q. Previous productions of the play have emphasized different aspects of the show (the politics; the macabre; the sexuality; the gore). What’s your vision for “Macbeth”?

A. As I explored the play, I realized that “Macbeth” is the original supernatural horror thriller. This is a story where battles rage, murderers roam, ghosts haunt, witches prophesize, apparitions rise, daggers float, storms rage, children are killed and people are beheaded. The word “blood” appears on nearly every page. It has all the classic elements of the thrillers we know and love. While many modern interpretations tend toward spare psychological renditions where everything is in the characters’ heads, my desire was to mount a production where it’s all right there on the stage. To restore the shocks and chills that are inherent in the story — and make you jump in your seat.

Q. In the press release, you described some “animatronic apparitions” you’re planning to include in the show. Without giving too much away, what can you tell us about them?

A. I’ve been blessed with a “perfect storm” of creative talent, and it’s enabled me to be pretty ambitious. Our fight choreographer, Vijay Welch, has staged truly exciting fight sequences with broadswords, quarterstaffs and other weapons. Effects designer Anika Peyton is building apparitions that speak and move, a creepily realistic severed head and devices that will deliver blood effects created in copious quantities by “blood maven” Pam Sacui. I also recruited percussionist Steven Ley to add live sound effects and underscoring, which brings a whole new level to the experience. Costumer Cherie Stebner is giving us a fascinating blend of period styles, so you will see kilts and leather jackets as well as some cool “Steampunk” sci-fi elements.

Q. Who’s appearing in the show?

A. The utterly amazing Cheryl Games plays Lady Macbeth; other cream-of-the-crop local actors include Tom O’Donnell, Terry Shears, Dave and Donny Wolford, Craig Snay, Carl Brockway and Chuck Kettering. The play also brings some talented new faces to the Playhouse stage: Liz Conrad (Lady Macduff), and Jeff Carey and William Goff (Macduff and Malcolm) commute from as far away as Westlake and Hermitage to be a part of this experience.

Q. You’re playing the title role as well as directing. What type of challenges are there in doing theatrical double-duty?

A. Being a director is by nature objective: You look at the big picture from an exterior state of focus. Being an actor is subjective: You see only through that character’s eyes. Switching your focus back and forth can be a challenge. That’s why I recruited Craig Snay to assistant- direct and give me feedback on my performance.

Q. Are you hoping to do more Shakespeare in the future? If so, which plays are you itching to tackle?

A. I’ve always dreamed of doing the complete “War of the Roses” cycle. But that’s all down the road. For now, I just want to give our audience at “Macbeth” a (literally) bloody good time.

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