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Outdoor festivals sometimes have a challenge replicating Shakespeare’s locales: the streets of Venice, alleyways of Verona, or a king’s palace. But Delaware Shakespeare has no such hurdles to leap for its production of Macbeth. While Rockwood Park is always a picturesque setting, its recent designation as Delaware’s pre-eminent haunted destination adds an extra frisson, and telling this murderous tale amid looming pines and flickering firefly-lit meadows is a dramatic match.
Since 2006, Del Shakes has held its summer festival at Rockwood, where they last offered “the Scottish play” 13 years ago. Directing here with flair and spooky staging, AZ Espinoza has re-tooled this tale of the murderous Macbeths and their treachery to center around the play’s witches. That trio haunts most of the scenes, even taking over some of the principal characters mid-speech or delivering crucial news as messengers. Sometimes, directorial choices like this can seem filigreed over the plot, but Espinoza’s conception is an effective creative expansion and deepening of the familiar script.
The Scottish Play
Successful in battle, exultant Scottish generals Macbeth (Mariah Ghant) and Banquo (Zach Valdez) are headed to a victory celebration. Their homeward path crosses three supernatural “weird sisters” (CJ Higgins, Kimie Muroya, and Rachel O’Hanlon-Rodriguez), who accost the warriors with unsettling predictions that seem to quickly come true.
These double-edged prophecies lead a conflicted Macbeth and his ambitious wife (Ciera Gardner) down a bloody path of ambition, treachery, lies, and murders—first of King Duncan (Katherine Perry) and then of everyone else who comes between them and the Scottish throne they have come to covet.
The ensuing bloodbath does crown Macbeth as monarch, but one who is feared, hated, and ultimately isolated, and the couple’s evil actions drive Lady Macbeth to madness. Throughout, the newly minted king continues to dwell on the witches, who warn him to “beware Macduff” (Tyler S. Elliott). Macbeth kills Macduff’s wife and children, driving that noble into a military alliance with Duncan’s heir Malcolm (Eliza Waterman) that will ultimately defeat the despot.
An aura of uncertainty
Here, the witches begin this show, and as the summer light wanes and Espinoza’s supernatural premise gains force, darkness overtakes both the audience and the players. In the title role, Ghant gains in power as Macbeth’s early uncertainty gives way to a willing descent into bloody ambition. As Lady Macbeth, Gardner is all steel from the start, leaving her little emotional range. The work of Valdez and Waterman is especially clear and strong, and throughout—with the help of text coach Cassandra Alexander—all the actors handle Shakespeare’s rich (and often familiar) text with confidence, clarity, and aplomb.
Like many Shakespeare companies, Del Shakes of necessity casts its actors in multiple roles, and though the players are generally able to make these switches clear (especially to those who know the script), Anna Sorrentino’s costume design could have assisted with some helpful sartorial distinctions.
After her stint as the quickly assassinated King Duncan, through the rest of the show, Perry plays Hecate, the goddess of magic, witchcraft, and the night, powerfully leading her cadre of three witches in deeds ranging from mischievous to malevolent. All four actors are exuberantly and dangerously involved in the storytelling. For instance, one assumes the comic role of the Porter at the castle gate, and others morph into messengers or other nobles. The trio’s disconcerting slides in and out of these characters add to the aura of uncertainty that Espinoza so effectively creates.
Working with the darkness
As the moon rises and the sun sets, outdoor comedies are sometimes challenged to maintain the show’s tone. But here, the gathering darkness (coming at the close of the first half) plays perfectly into this production. As the three witches roam the festival grounds, they take over more and more of the play, becoming integral to Macbeth’s increasing disintegration.
Deftly assisting this transition is Michael Hahn’s soundscape—sometimes music and sometimes not—but always riveting and integral to the evening’s emotional shape. It informs and strengthens the intermission (not easily accomplished outdoors), along with Calvin Anderson’s increasingly ominous lighting. The jagged stakes that ring Marie Laster’s two playing areas are used almost like instruments. And when Hecate and her witches intone their famous “double, double, toil and trouble” speech over the smoking stage, a chill ran through the audience and this reviewer.
Macbeth is a play teeming with violence, and, while admirable in concept, the thoughtful martial arts choreography (Emmanuel “Manny” Chacon) in lieu of actual stage fighting does not match the ferocity of the play’s language or the impassioned characterizations of this company.
Worth a trip to the Delaware heath
Espinoza’s chilling atmosphere of brooding menace was undercut by two cheery summer theater interludes: a tee shirt giveaway during intermission and a post-show speech by Ghant, who dropped her characterization to make a support pitch. Pre-show festivities gave a precis of the plot (welcome for those new to the play), so surely these two housekeeping items could have been accomplished then or during artistic director David Stradley’s warm welcoming speech, leaving the play’s considerable impact intact.
Macbeth is one of the Bard’s most ruthless and relentless tragedies, which probably accounts for why it’s also one of his most popular, most produced works. With its strong concept and compellingly delivered language, this Del Shakes production is certainly worth a trip to the Scottish heath that’s been created on Rockwood’s ostensibly haunted grounds.
Rockwood Park is in North Wilmington, off I-95. Gates open for pre-show and picnicking (food and drink also available for purchase) 75 minutes before curtain. BYO blankets and chairs.
What, When, Where
Macbeth. By William Shakespeare, directed by AZ Espinoza. $22-$25; pay-what-you-can on Wednesdays. Through August 6, 2023, at Rockwood Park, 4671 Washington Street Extension, Wilmington. (302) 468-4890 or delshakes.org.
The entire festival area is wheelchair-accessible; it is necessary to traverse a gravel walkway and the grass lawn seating area.
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