DECATUR — It is generally accepted that William Shakespeare wrote 37 plays for the stage, many of which are still performed regularly today. Among them, audiences will find comedies, histories, romances and tragedies of all sorts; an array of stories that could keep many theater programs busy for years at a time, especially if they stage only one Shakespeare production every other year, as is typical at Millikin University.
It is an unusual opportunity, then, for audiences in Decatur to be able to see “Macbeth” performed in Millikin’s Albert Taylor Theatre next week so soon after its 2010 staging at Richland Community College, with so many other plays as possibilities.
“I wasn’t able to see the Richland production, but I heard wonderfully positive things about it,” said director and theater faculty member Alex Miller. “I think the reason we chose this one had to do with where it fit in the schedule and the interesting design opportunities that we could take to make it unique from any other recent performances in the area.”
Perhaps unexpectedly for the private university theater program, the design opportunities Miller refers to are in the realm of “less is more.” Unlike the three-dimensional staging of the Richland production, which employed multi-tiered platforms and a “thrust” of the main stage extending into the audience, Miller said his show would make a different case with its simplicity.
“The biggest word to encapsulate it is ‘minimalist,’ ” he said. “We chose to set it bare bones to give a greater focus to the play. Everything that we could do to bring more attention to the story, we made that choice.”
The macabre story of “Macbeth” is known as one of Shakespeare’s bleakest and bloodiest tragedies, but Miller said his adaptation would also attempt to look beyond the ambition and bloodshed to find the other side of its characters.
“The challenge as director is to also find the few moments of levity that can give it a little balance, although they are few and far between,” he said. “There are a few moments where you can play on the irony of the events in the middle of this dark tragedy of revenge and ambition.”
Jack O’Brien, who plays the title character of Scottish noble Macbeth, once saw the role performed at London’s Royal Shakespeare Company, and found it inspiring in constructing his own take on the character.
“I think he is trying very hard to do the right thing and deep down he wants to be a good person,” O’Brien said. “We’re really working on the relationship between him and Lady Macbeth in particular. We don’t want to spin her as completely evil and always leading him in the wrong direction. We need to find a way for people to relate to the two of them as human beings and a married couple.”
Miller believes any alterations needed to make these points come through in their final staging of “Macbeth” are provided for by the play’s adaptability. The story provides a simple framework for addressing the play’s burning questions.
“The great thing Shakespeare does is he just asks the questions, he doesn’t give you the answers,” Miller said. “They’re all open to artistic interpretation. There are questions of ‘life vs. life after death,’ ‘ambition vs. integrity’ or ‘loyalty vs. ambition.’ Each soliloquy yields some sort of discovery on one of those questions.”