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Friday, February 16, 2024

URI theatre to stage Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’ on Feb. 22

Production opens eight-show run Feb. 22 in J Studio

Macbeth and Lady Macbeth and the witches who predict their
rise and fall – from left, Alora McCarroll, Eva St-Germain
and Celeste Tucci.
With all the adaptations of Shakespeare, you might wonder what version of “Macbeth” will show up on the University of Rhode Island’s J Studio stage when the play opens Thursday, Feb. 22. 

There will be no Denzel Washington movie adaptation, no Ralph Fiennes in Army fatigues, no one-hour concept play, says Lisa Wolpe, a Shakespeare scholar and visiting artist from Santa Monica, California, who is directing URI’s production. 

“I was asked to do a fairly traditional production,” says Wolpe, who is a veteran of staging innovative and inclusive configurations of the Bard’s works. “Many of the students are doing their first Shakespeare and they’ve never heard the play. To actually just hear the play as written, with very few cuts, is a particular opportunity.” 

That opportunity includes a play—one of Shakespeare’s most popular—full of political ambition, murder, guilt and the supernatural. 

First performed around 1606, “Macbeth” is the story of the brave Scottish general Macbeth, who chances on a prophecy from three witches that he will one day become king of Scotland. 

Even for a loyal soldier, such a prediction can go to your head. Consumed by ambition—and egged on by his wife, Lady Macbeth—they kill King Duncan to take the throne and keep killing to keep it, going mad in the process. 

“It’s one of the best plays Shakespeare wrote,” says Wolpe. “It’s very short. It’s very dark. Certainly, it’s the darkest play that he wrote. After ‘Macbeth,’ he started writing lighter material. I think having written ‘Macbeth,’ he had to take a break because living with those characters for a playwright is even worse than living with them as an actor or a director—the spirits are in your heart.” 

In URI’s production, the lead roles of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth will be played by Isaiah Agabi, a freshman theatre and civil engineering major from Warwick, and Abraphine Ngafaih, a sophomore theatre major from Providence. As they’ve explored their roles, they’ve seen both sides of the murderous couple. 

“Despite all the unhinged murdering, Macbeth is sensitive to the things that happen to him throughout the play,” says Agabi. “Who wouldn’t go crazy after seeing the ghost of your best friend who you just murdered?” 

Ngafaih played another doomed monarch as the title role in URI’s fall production of “Marie Antoinette,” and she sees both characters as grappling with public judgment. 

“Lady Macbeth wrestles with deep guilt while Marie faces external challenges,” she says. “The characters challenge traditional gender norms. Lady Macbeth is more overt and Marie embodies royal opulence.” 

A director, actor, scholar and activist, Wolpe has been “unpacking” the Bard’s texts for more than 45 years while championing diversity and inclusion in theatre. Along with garnering numerous awards, her work includes 23 years running the all-female, multicultural Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company, where she played probably more of Shakespeare’s male roles than any woman in history. 

She also knows “Macbeth” by heart. She has directed it, played Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, even turned the 50-character play into a three-actor adaptation that has pushed the envelope on casting and has been staged in Edinburgh, New York, London and Los Angeles, among other stops. 

URI’s production, Wolpe says, has been a “humanistic journey,” working with the 17 actors, who play about 30 characters. She likens the students’ experience of taking on “Macbeth” to going on a walkabout. “I think doing Shakespeare can be that massive opportunity for something huge to call on a young person and give them space to become as large as they can be,” she says. 

Agabi says Wolpe’s expertise has helped him and his fellow actors in many ways, including understanding details that might be hidden to them in Shakespeare’s language and creating a full story arc for their characters. 

“It’s been like opening a box of acting secrets,” adds Ngafaih. “She’s guided me to discover the nuances in this character. I’m trying to soak up as much as I can because there’s just so much to learn from her, and applying these techniques goes beyond Shakespeare.” 

“The show is super creepy and has many elements that allow for creative liberty,” adds Agabi. “Our production will be very visually pleasing with all the costumes, lighting, set design and all the parts that make ‘Macbeth’ what it is.” 

For their parts, the set and costume designs echo the play’s dark themes. Visiting artist Robert Hamilton’s scenery plays off a gothic, horror and apocalyptic feel. “It’s a gorgeous design,” Wolpe says. 

Karl Aspelund, associate professor in Textiles, Fashion Merchandise and Design at URI, designed costumes that reflect a world where no one is safe from the slaughter, he says. 

“This is a harsh world at war, so things are a bit rough around the edges,” he says. “The rules of the realm don’t apply to the witches, however. They slide in and out and can do whatever they please, so their costumes reflect a more complex sensibility. And then there’s Lady Macbeth. Let’s just say she flares up in the darkness.” 

For Aspelund, it’s his first theatre production in more than 20 years, after having designed for over 40 productions and four films while living in Iceland, and more after moving to the U.S. Over the years, he has talked with Paula McGlasson, theatre department chair, about designing a show at URI, but with work demands and the pandemic, the timing didn’t work out. 

“To have the opportunity to dive into ‘Macbeth’ was hard to resist,” he says, “and then I learned that Lisa Wolpe would be directing – well, who could say no?” 

“Macbeth” runs Feb. 22-24 and Feb. 29-March 2 at 7:30 p.m. and Feb. 23 and March 3 at 2 p.m. in J Studio at the Fine Arts Center, 105 Upper College Road, Kingston Campus. 

Tickets are $20 for the general public and $15 for senior citizens and URI students, faculty and staff. Tickets can be purchased online, by calling (401) 874-5843 or at the box office in Room 101H of the Fine Arts Center.