‘Macbeth’ Goes to the Desert

Double, double, toil and trouble. It’s time not for the fire to burn and the cauldron to bubble, but instead to welcome Macbeth back to Downtown Los Angeles.

The local theater company 134 West brings William Shakespeare’s tragedy to the Arts District this week. Over four weeks the group will stage 12 shows in a new space in the ArtShare L.A. complex in the Arts District.

Previews begin Thursday, Aug. 15, and opening night is Saturday. Tickets are $20 and the play runs through Sept. 7.

Macbeth is one of the Bard’s most staged plays, and has been mounted numerous times in Downtown. Last year the City West-based Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles produced an immersive version of the work for Halloween (it returns this fall).

This production is taking a different approach, moving away from a focus on medieval aesthetics and trimming some of the heavy, supernatural elements. Instead, said director Alyssa Escalante, the cast is playing up Macbeth’s coming-of-age elements. Escalante said that too often, given the complexity of Shakespeare’s writing, the text comes across in a very direct, black-and-white framing.

“Within a youthful context, it becomes an examination of what ambition means to the young. There’s kind of an innocence in it,” Escalante said on a recent weekday afternoon in front of the theater. “I’d love for the audience to be totally with Macbeth’s decision until they just can’t any more.”

Getting there involves refocusing the relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth (Megan Ruble). Tristan Waldron, who plays the title character, said the new production concentrates on enhancing the camaraderie and affection between the couple in the effort to present Macbeth as someone trying to secure his family’s future.

“I’ve seen it too many times and the love story gets lost. He refers to his wife as his ‘dearest partner of greatness,’” Waldron said. “Often she’s this menacing villain that’s going to corrupt him. The love story gets glossed over.”

Escalante and Waldron said they had been working on the idea for their version of Macbeth for two years, and that the production really got underway last August when the team started looking for a space. They struck up a relationship with ArtShare and began talking about utilizing its theater, which the nonprofit allows artists to use.

For ArtShare, Macbeth marks an opportunity to host a full run of a show. The nonprofit, which provides studio and exhibition space for artists, and also provides arts education programming, has housed numerous theatrical events, but none that ran for a full month. Cheyanne Sauter, executive director of ArtShare, said that the current set-up allows 134 West to occupy the 75-seat theater at night and during rehearsals, while leaving the space available for classes and other artists during the rest of the week.

“It also works with our current show, The Future is Now, which is about bad futurism,” Sauter said, waving at the art exhibition in the room, which features paintings and sculptures depicting dark extrapolations of our current time.

The new version of Macbeth also stands out for its staging. It’s set not in a Scottish castle, but rather in a post-apocalyptic desert. Just don’t expect a Mad Max-type landscape — Escalante described it as Macbeth by way of Joshua Tree.

The creative team said the touches are somewhat subdued, with the costumes inspired by desert fashion. Macbeth, Macduff and others will still fight with swords, Waldron said, but the set includes a lot of found items and metal objects, including car parts. There’s even a coyote skull on the table at Macbeth’s banquet hall, Waldron said with a laugh.

The ArtShare theater has a few support columns, which the crew has to work around. That helped inspire a somewhat minimalist and modular set, with pieces that can be easily removed or added to fit into landscapes. Waldron said the layout propels some creative uses, including frequently having the three witches appear through shadow play.

There are other changes from the expected. Escalante said in some places text is moved around. Many roles are double-cast, and some characters have been cut. She stressed that all the changes have been made to enhance clarity and to hone in on the theme of youthful ambition.

While the idea of fiddling with Shakespeare’s text might raise some eyebrows, the creative team stressed that this Macbeth remains true to the original plot and themes. Sure, there’s a desert landscape, but there is also plenty of scheming, revenge, sword fights and death.

Macbeth runs every Thursday-Saturday, Aug. 15-Sept. 7, at ArtShare L.A., 801 E. Fourth Pl. or macbethla.com.

nicholas@downtownnews.com