Alliance Theatre alum soars in Denver production of ‘Macbeth’

Ariel Shafir as Macbeth. (Photos courtesy AdamsVisCom)

Every once in a while—not often—devoted theatre-goers get to witness a performance that enlarges and enlivens and even alters the face of an art form, and changes one’s perceptions of what great theatre can do.

This sounds pretty highfalutin, I know. At the end of October I was privileged to see the Denver Center for the Performing Arts’ production of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” and I haven’t been the same since. I’m sharing my experience because I know Atlanta INtown has many readers with a genuine interest in the arts; occasionally, I have reported on New York excursions to Broadway. Just as many have a keen interest in goings-on in the Big Apple, many are also interested in cutting-edge theatre on the national scene. And some events are just too special to keep quiet about.

My Denver excursion started eight years ago, in a sense. In 2009 I saw and reviewed an Alliance Theatre production of David Mamet’s two-character play “A Life in the Theatre,” featuring Broadway veteran André de Shields and a younger actor named Ariel Shafir. I liked it so much I saw it twice and had a pleasant conversation with Mr. Shafir, a New York based theatre, film, and television actor. We kept in touch.

I saw that he was performing in important theatres in Chicago, Oregon, California, and of course New York. But then I discovered that Mr. Shafir, who studied at the Boston University School for the Arts and also the British American Drama Academy in Oxford, was going to play Macbeth in what looked like a groundbreaking, watershed production. I read rapturous reviews. I decided it was time to travel, see a play, and interview the very talented Mr. Shafir. He told me in Denver that he had also won a Suzi Bass Award for the Alliance’s production of Steve Martin’s comedy “The Underpants” in 2006. I did not know that, nor did I see the play.

We now switch to “Macbeth’s” director, Robert O’Hara, a man about whom The New York Times said, “He is shaking up the world, one audience at a time.” In researching the play, he came upon Banquo’s line as he addresses the witches: “You should be women, and yet your beards forbid me to interpret that you are so.” Mr. O’Hara thought: “Well, maybe they’re not women. Maybe they are men!”

Banquo (Alec Hynes) and Macbeth (Ariel Shafir).

That opened the door “for a concept told from the point of view of the supernatural: specifically, a warlock coven that gathers yearly to recreate the tale of Macbeth.” The warlocks play all the parts; thus we have an all-male version of “Macbeth.” Think about it, Shakespeare purists, before you shriek in horror. In Shakespeare’s time all the parts were played by men or boys. Lady Macbeth (who intones to the ethers to “Come ye spirits, unsex me here”) was written by a man, played by a man, and most of the audience were probably men. The pit of Acheron, a swamp near Macbeth’s castle, becomes the main setting for the entire play.

Mr. O’Hara: “What if ‘Macbeth’ was a ritual performance done by the people usually blamed (for Macbeth’s murders)? The play already has its magical properties; it’s interesting how the concept meets the storyline.” He goes on: “I’m not changing any of the text…I’m not changing the gender of the characters…Lady Macbeth is a woman; Macbeth is a man. We’re playing character, not gender.” The play becomes a pagan ritual in which the warlocks summon the performance of “Macbeth” as a sort of morality play.

When you consider all the things that could have gone wrong: conception, directing, casting, choreography, stage, set, lighting, and sound; and then yours truly reports that it was a theatrical miracle, that everything worked brilliantly together—perhaps you will see why I call this performance a dream of theatrical rapture, a work of art, total theatre.

And it’s sexy, with pulsating music, minimal stylized Jacobean costumes (try picturing that), amazing lighting. It is all set in the Space Theatre, a pentagonal-styled state-of-the-art theatre-in-the-round, which was recently completely renovated at a cost of several million dollars. This 400-seat theatre has a sense of contained energy, a sense of focus, of being immersed in the experience; in short, it blows your mind.

It’s impossible to convey the dark, dreadful excitement and sense of discovery this production engenders; it’s enough that you know it happened. And I truly think that Shakespeare would have been pleased.

Warlocks (Thaddeus Fitzpatrick, Joe Goldammer, Kim Fischer).

Back to Mr. Shafir; I was fortunate enough to have a coffee with him several hours before the performance. (I shall now refer to him as Ariel; Lord knows I’m old enough to be his father—easily.) Really accomplished actors, secure in their talent and profession, are invariably pleasant people—especially when talking to someone about a mutual passion: theatre.

This Alliance Theatre alumnus called Macbeth a “Mount Rushmore role,” a pinnacle, a “feather in my cap.” The company played, incidentally, to sold-out houses, from Sept. 15 to the end of October. But he noted the mental, psychic, and physical energy that playing Macbeth took. This was a three hour production, one intermission, and some days there were matinees. And Ariel said that “When you probe the dark side, trafficking in the dark arts, with a candle and a machete, there’s a price one pays.” And he told me later it took him quite a while to shake this darkness.

He called “Macbeth” the “original horror story,” but he knew that the cast and Director O’Hara’s design team were doing something extraordinary. The actor said that with this show, “We’re getting a taste of where theatre has evolved, and Robert O’Hara is at the finger’s edge of all this.”

He was also most generous in his praise of fellow actor Adam Poss, who played Lady Macbeth. Their scenes together were magnificent, sensual, hypnotic. There was no touch of campiness or “Look, Lady Macbeth is a man” type of construct going on. Here we had two fine actors playing characters, not sexes, remember? And—it—worked.

Concerning Ariel Shafir’s Macbeth, he was a revelation: He truly made the dialogue sound modern, almost improvisational—yet he was using Shakespeare’s text verbatim. The actress Marianne Moore recently said, “There is something so intimate about acting; lots of things dissolve. Gender dissolves. Age dissolves. Culture dissolves. And you’re just with actors.” I know now what she was talking about.

Ariel Shafir

At the end of the play, Macbeth lies dead in the center of the stage; snow is falling, indicating the ritual of Macbeth will be reborn again next year. When the lights came up for the curtain call, Mr. Shafir (I’m formal again) rose, by himself. Then he was joined by the entire cast. The audience didn’t just rise and applaud; they cheered. They knew they had seen something truly special. I got goose bumps.

In closing I’ll mention that Ariel Shafir has a website, if you’d like to know more about him. He’s about to star Off-Broadway in a play written by Robert O’Hara called “Mankind.” Check it out.

If you follow my reviews in Atlanta Intown, you know that I’m quite a cheerleader for Atlanta theatre. But I really must say: Our “sister city” Denver has set the bar a little higher. For this veteran theatregoer, the Denver Center for the Performing Arts’ “Macbeth” was worth traveling 1,000 miles for; I’ll never forget it. If you’re out west or anywhere near Denver, do not overlook it.

For more information, visit denvercenter.org and arielshafir.com.

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