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Till Birnam Wood… “watching” Shakespeare while blindfolded


[Alaina opens her mind and closes her eyes, reviewing a performance of Shakespeare’s Macbeth during which the audience is blindfolded. — the Artblog editors]

Lunching with colleagues a few weeks ago, I said I’d be looking for a date for a new Fringe Festival adaptation of Macbeth that the audience would experience blindfolded, and there was a short but awkward silence up and down the table.

“Well, I don’t want to see that,” someone exclaimed.

An old boss of mine on the Philly theater scene, who shall here remain nameless, loves to call Shakespeare “cultural castor oil,” and I guess plenty of people share his aversion, so when you throw in the inability even to look at the actors on stage, I can imagine a stampede for the exit.

Sight stripped and dialogue dissected

Show poster
Photo courtesy of Fringe Arts.

But as someone who pores over a battered Complete Works every time I come home from a good Shakespeare show, no matter how many times I’ve seen the play, John Schultz’s Til Birnam Wood… was near the top of my must-see list at this year’s Fringe. (Full disclosure: my friend and former schoolmate, Josh Hitchens, appears in the show.)

It’s Macbeth with the language stripped down (the show runs for about an hour) and the noise dialed upthink witches, murder, witches, murder, witches, battle, severed head (thump)–in the sweaty darkness.

Dark, hot, and deliciously disturbing

The show takes place in the intimate and somewhat oppressive black box of South Philly’s Studio X, the home of Theatre Exile. Could no one fan a bit of the lobby’s coolness into the theater, especially once we’re all sweating under blindfolds? I’m thankful every time the actors start running around, because the hurtling bodies generate a breeze.

The show begins with the Weird Sisters (Rachel Brodeur, Katherine Perry, and Angela Smith, who also play various ensemble roles) entwined under a stretchy black shroud contorted by poking fingers and gasping mouths.

The audience has its instructions: When the witches squeal “’Tis time,” they hurry to don the single-use black blindfolds provided at the box office.

The show gets its title from the killer king’s obsession with a prophecy about Birnam Wood: Until the forest uproots itself to walk to his castle on Dunsinane Hill, no one can thwart his power.

“The word ‘nature’ appears more in Macbeth than in any other of Shakespeare’s plays,” the playbill notes. It’s true–the words are a stew of animal shrieks and blood and tumultuous weather, not to mention all those horrible bits of dismembered fauna that go into the witches’ cauldron.

According to the playbill, the concept of experiencing the play in darkness “immerses the audience in the action,” and it does make sense if you think about how we experience real-life weather. Sure, we look at the sky, but you know it’s storming when you smell the soaked and steaming pavement, wet your skin, hear the thunder, feel the chill roll in on the wind, or flex that gritty, feverish ache in your joints just before the rain marches.

My old boss would probably argue with me, but especially with the gruesome, percussive language of Macbeth (“Double, double, toil and trouble/Fire burn and cauldron bubble”; “done” and “done” and “done” and “done”), there’s plenty to listen to, besides the literally thundering sound design. The audience becomes the opposite of the sleepwalking Lady Macbeth, whose eyes stay open while their “sense is shut.”

Jennifer Summerfield plays Lady M. with chillingly distinct musicality and brutality, and Keith Conallen’s Macbeth cuts through the dark in every scene. The actors seem to fly off the stage as soon as our blindfolds are on, declaiming from every corner and often right in your ear. The writhing, sibilant witches would raise goosebumps if it weren’t for the heat in the theater.

Schultz uses plenty of live sound cues, including the enveloping metallic hiss of blade on blade as Macbeth describes a dagger in the air: “I have thee not, and yet I see thee still./Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible/To feeling as to sight?”

We know what he means.

Those with tender noses may feel that the sensory onslaught goes too far when the heralded march of Birnam Wood, thanks to soldiers bearing fresh-cut branches, comes with the piney scent of 100 evergreen air fresheners.

But Till Birnam Wood…, running for only five performances, is worth a look. Or a listen. It’s happening at Studio X, 1340 S. 13th Street. According to FringeArts, the two remaining shows on September 10 at 10:30pm and September 14 at 11:30pm are sold out, but tickets may be available at the door. For more information, click here or call 215-413-1318.