By Tessa Raebeck
Bloodlust, revenge and sin will fill the Shelter Island Presbyterian Church this weekend, as Sylvester Manor presents “Macbeth,” one of Shakespeare’s most harrowing plays.
Sylvester Manor, with a history of arts programming that goes back to the late 19th century when members of the Sylvester family hosted “summer salons” entertaining artists and writers with poetry readings, music performances and plays, is returning to its creative roots through Shakespeare at the Manor. “Macbeth” marks the fifth production in the series.
And the Shelter Island community is part of Shakespeare at the Manor productions, with residents hosting members of the company at their homes during the length of the production, playing small roles in the show and even cooking meals for the cast.
“This engages the community beyond being members of an audience and provides everyone with the opportunity to feel connected to the excitement of the weekend. We’ve had a tremendous response from both the companies and the volunteers who have participated,” said Samara Levenstein, the co-chair of the Manor’s arts and education committee, who calls the island’s engagement in the production “community-supported theater.”
It is the fruition of Ms. Levenstein’s “pet project” to bring outdoor and site-specific theater performance to Shelter Island, in the model of Shakespeare in the Park. It started in 2011 with “As You Like It,” performed in a field surrounded by the property’s organic farm. Last summer, “Much Ado About Nothing” brought audience members to the theater, the Manor’s front lawn, by way of canoes.
Drew Foster, the director of “Much Ado About Nothing,” returns to Shelter Island for “Macbeth.” Since graduating from Julliard, Mr. Foster has been directing in Chicago and New York City. “It’s really exciting to have found a gem in Shelter Island and it has a really rich performance history,” Mr. Foster. “It’s fun to carry on the tradition that’s pretty rich within the manor already.”
For “Macbeth,” Mr. Foster chose the Shelter Island Presbyterian Church, which will highlight the religious undertones of the play and the dilemmas characters face as they grapple with murder, power and vengeance against a daunting moral backdrop.
“The question of the play is do I kill Duncan or do I not kill Duncan,” said Mr. Foster. “So when Macbeth is wrestling with these questions, he’s literally standing underneath a giant cross, so he has to use that and when someone does something sacrilegious, they’re actually doing it in a church. When the witches come and defame it, they’re literally turning the church on its head—it becomes more immediate.”
“It’s not necessarily a traditional stage or theater experience where you go into a theater and the theater is manipulated to fit the show. We actually chose the show to fit the space,” the director added. “We try to do the whole show around everyone.”
Scenes will be performed in the choir loft, behind the audience, up and down the aisles, on the altar and in the hallway, where the characters are invisible but their voices audible.
With lines as familiar as “blood will have blood,” directors can struggle with how to keep the classic Shakespeare production fresh, but rather than shy away from the challenge, Mr. Foster embraces it, happy to expand on the work of those before him.
“When you’re doing a new play, I find that much more difficult because you’re trying to create something out of nothing,” he said. “These plays have rich histories of performance, so you sort of get to borrow and learn from brilliant people who have tried it out before you.”
Mr. Foster solicited the help of his peers at Julliard and in the New York City theater world in forming the company. “Luckily, I have very talented friends,” he said of his cast. “They’re all amazing. About half of them have been on Broadway and they’re all terrific.”
Actors who attended Julliard with Mr. Foster are portraying both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Robert Eli, who plays Macbeth, has done several shows on Broadway and has a small part on the acclaimed political drama “House of Cards.” Phoebe Dunn will play his bloodthirsty wife, Lady Macbeth. “She’s just out of school,” said Mr. Foster, “very young, but very talented.”
As part of the manor’s partnership with the Shelter Island School, the cast will direct a workshop for high school students this Friday. Students will act as stagehands and ushers and a few students have small roles in the play.
“Macbeth” will be shown Friday, March 7, and Saturday, March 8, at 7 p.m. at the Shelter Island Presbyterian Church. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $20 for adults and $7 for students age 8 through college-aged (the play is not recommended for children under 8). Tickets are available at sylvestermanor.org.