Bay Street Theater brings ‘Macbeth’ to Life for Young Audiences

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Erin Margaret Pettigrew (Lady Macbeth) and Matthew Henerson (Macbeth) in Bay Street Theater’s Literature Live! production of "Macbeth." Courtesy Bay Street Theater.
Each fall, Bay Street Theater presents Literature Live! its popular education initiative, which brings classic literature to life on stage for the benefit of middle and high school students across Long Island.

But like all other aspects of life, the rise of COVID-19 in 2020 threw a major monkey wrench into the way in which theaters present plays to live audiences — a particular concern for Bay Street as it pondered the logistics of bringing students into a confined space for a show. So last year, Bay Street opted for an all-Zoom production of “Moby Dick,” with students accessing the production online and even the actors playing their parts from the safety of their own homes.

This year, things are a bit different. With vaccines widely available, but many young people still not eligible for the shots, Bay Street has created a hybrid approach for its newest Literature Live! production of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.” On Tuesday, November 9, at 8 p.m., the theater will premier its filmed version of the play, which will be followed by a live talkback with the show’s creators and actors. The production will then be available for school groups and public audiences to access online.

Unlike the 2020 “Moby Dick” production, in which actors were recorded separately and green screen technology was used to create backgrounds, “Macbeth” was performed with the full cast on the Bay Street stage without a live audience in attendance and shot from various angles, like a movie, and with a similar speed and pacing.

Director Allen O’Reilly notes the process began with a quick read through, table work, initial staging and then, filming of scenes — which were largely shot out of order — over the course of several days.

“We’ve got the cameras and full production values, but we’re treating it like a filmed theatrical production like we’ve seen on PBS,” O’Reilly explained. “The difference is instead of looking like an archival shoot of a play, we have angles, cuts and multi-camera views. It’s a nice melding of theatrical and filmic techniques.”

As Bay Street’s director of education and community outreach, O’Reilly brings a lot of experience to this show, not only in terms of his understanding of Shakespeare’s plays, but also his knowledge of how to create engaging theater for young audiences.

“I know this play well,” O’Reilly said. “It’s my 12th time working on it as either an actor or director. In my previous life I worked for a Shakespeare company in Atlanta, I was the education director and an actor. We would do high school tours and my charge was these adapted Shakespeare pieces.”

In other words, O’Reilly has what it takes to knock the Bard’s plays down to a digestible size for students — this production runs a lean 90 minutes from start to finish.

“‘Macbeth’ is the shortest of all of Shakespeare’s tragedies, so there’s not much to cut,” O’Reilly said.

He also understands that the language of Shakespeare can be challenging for young theater-goers. For that reason, he opted to shift this telling of “Macbeth” — a play about a would-be king who relies on a trio of witches to point the way to his future — from a remote 11th century castle to the decidedly more modern Scottish sanatorium, circa 1963.

“For me, having such involvement with the play over the years, one of the things that’s always been a major concern is, what do you do with the witches?” he said. “I’ve had them as children, which has worked well. I’ve seen them as old hags, or sirens and beautiful women.

“The 1963 decision was based on a lot of factors, including what Bay Street had in their stock,” he added. “We knew we didn’t have an exorbitant amount of money for renting kilts. I wanted it to be in a period that would feel removed from its primary target, which is students. So we decided on 1963 — before JFK was assassinated, before cell phones and gaming and computers — so it would seem distant, almost ancient to target audiences.”

O’Reilly adds that the period and the setting also evoke images of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” the 1975 movie based on Ken Kesey’s novel and one of its most haunting characters.

“I got this image of Nurse Ratchet and the orderlies as witches,” explained O’Reilly. “Whether they are doesn’t really matter. They are shape shifters taking on these personas. What’s real and what’s not? For Macbeth, they’re there in the functional realm.”

Matthew Henerson has the title role in this production and it’s the first time the Los Angeles-based actor has worked with Bay Street Theater. He concedes that it’s somewhat unusual for a West Coast actor to appear in a production like this, but, he notes, the pandemic has changed everything, including the auditioning process. While most East Coast stage castings happen out of New York City, he explains that casting directors have now shifted to video auditioning only, which gave Henerson an opportunity to be considered for the role of Macbeth. Because he has relatives he could stay with in New Jersey, he was able to be considered a New York hire.

But it’s still a long way to travel for a show, and when asked why he was so eager to do this play, Henerson said, “Because it was ‘Macbeth.’ It’s a play I adore and I haven’t done Shakespeare since 2016.

“I was hungry. I sent a monologue, not even from ‘Macbeth,’ and forgot about it and a few days later I got an email saying here’s your offer letter for Macbeth,” said the actor who has played the title character twice before.

When he first heard about the fast pace of the production — rehearsal for three days then shooting for a week — Henerson feared the worst.

“This will be a train wreck, I thought, no way in hell we are going to be able to do this,” he said. “Well, we did it. Allen staged the damn thing in three days, and on the third day we ran through it like a play, then we filmed it.

“Allen is an incredibly collaborative guy,” he added. “All of us actors and directors kneel at the altar of collaboration, but some directors kneel a little deeper than others. Allen has done 12 ‘Macbeths’ and his knowledge is deep and profound and he was incredibly generous with allowing people to suggest things.”

While Henerson is a true Shakespeare aficionado who came all the way from L.A. to star in this production, conversely, Joe Pallister, who lives in Hampton Bays and plays Macbeth’s main antagonist, Macduff, admits he’s relatively new to the genre — this is just his second time acting in a Shakespearean play. He has, however, racked up a great deal of experience on the Bay Street stage having appeared in five previous Literature Live! productions, including “To Kill A Mockingbird,” in which he portrayed a memorably evil Bob Ewell.

“I learned I have a lot more to learn when it comes to Shakespeare and the language itself,” said Pallister when asked to reflect on his experience in this play. “I’m familiar with ‘Macbeth’ and the overall story, but because it’s cut down, it’s hard to come through with the depth of these people who have done it 20 times.

“I was not at that level,” he added. “I let Allen know I didn’t have a lot of experience, but he said, ‘No, I want actors I know and trust who are natural and can bring a human level to it, rather than all Shakespeare pros.’”

For Pallister, shooting “Macbeth” as if it were a film ultimately worked to his benefit.

“It gave me the ability to not feel the pressure that it has to be right — like a beginning to end stage play,” Pallister explained. “It’s never easy, but working for the camera, I’m comfortable doing that. There’s less stress and we can just do another take if we need to. One scene we did a bunch of times because you could hear rain hitting the roof.”

This is the first acting role Pallister has taken on since the pandemic began in 2020, and for him, the hybrid model also proved an effective way to ease back into performance mode.

“There was a bit of acting rust. That added another level of this daunting task of taking on this language,” he confessed. “But it was really fun. I was absolutely very nervous going in. I’m always nervous, but this was outside what I know and am comfortable with. Once we got going, I felt pretty good.

“Everybody was great — it was just an honor to be a part of it given the level of talent and professionalism,” Pallister added. “We rehearsed three days and shot the entire thing in about four days. We couldn’t have done it with people who were difficult.”

Bay Street Theater’s Literature Live! staged virtual production of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” stars Matthew Henerson (Macbeth); Erin Margaret Pettigrew (Lady Macbeth); Genevieve Simon (Malcolm); Joe Pallister (Macduff); Allen O’Reilly (King Duncan); Teresa DeBerry (Ross and Witch); and Gabe Portuondo (Banquo). The play premieres on Tuesday, November 9, at 8 p.m., followed by a talkback with the cast and crew. “Macbeth” will be available via on-demand starting Monday, November 8, through Sunday, December 5. Tickets are $20 for public viewing at 631-725-9500 or baystreet.org. Group presentations are free for schools by contacting Allen O’Reilly, at allen@baystreet.org.

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