Dzieci Theatre presents: “Makbet”

Dzieci Theatre Presents: "Makbet" - Photo by Geo Geller
Photo by Geo Geller

What It Is

Lesser than Macbeth and greater.” – First Witch

Thus the witches speak to the fated king-to-be, setting in motion the tragic betrayals of the plot. The quote also captures something about Dzieci Theatre‘s newest incarnation of Makbet, playing through October 8th at Sure We Can in Brooklyn: in their stripped-down version, minimally produced with only three principle performers backed by a chorus, the elemental truth of the Scottish Play is brought forth in a profound, vivid, and completely unexpected way.

Steeped in Eastern European folk and theatrical traditions, and set deep within a funky recycling and community center in Brooklyn, the Dzieci ensemble transforms into a riotous band of storytellers who welcome you around a fire, and then lead you through the depths of human nature via an abridged version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, staged entirely within a shipping container.

The company follows “Rules of Engagement” for Makbet, which serve as a template for endless unique iterations conjured by the airtight ensemble:

  1. Actors must know the entire text
  2. Actors may not play the same role in successive sequences
  3. Roles can be taken or given, embraced or refused
  4. Three actors alone will play the principle roles
  5. We begin and end in ceremony
  6. Nothing else is planned

Each rule is carefully crafted, and their combined success is something to behold. Read on to find out more!

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Thurs-Sat @ 7pm, Sun @ 4pm
Sure We Can
219 McKibbin St
Brooklyn, NY 11206

Dzieci Theatre Presents: "Makbet" - Photo by Troy Hahn
Photo by Troy Hahn

Why It’s Good

There’s always a risk in seeking out so-called experimental work, off the beaten path. It seems more often than not, you end up discovering all the good reasons why that work isn’t mainstream. All the more exciting, then, to visit an active creative laboratory that consistently generates astounding work. Based in New York and working internationally, Dzieci is an experimental theater ensemble founded in 1997 that is “dedicated to the search of the ‘sacred’ through the medium of theater,” a mission that carries through all their work.

The performances are ongoing processes generated by the ensemble, as they refine themselves, the work, and their craft, mounting profound theatrical experiences and bringing their work to institutional settings around the city and beyond. Their repertoire of offerings includes Fools Mass, also presented at Sure We Can, as well as The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine every Christmas season; Cirkus Luna!, billed as “the worst family circus act ever”; A Passion, the Biblical tale as set in the shadow of the Warsaw ghetto; and many more.

Dzieci Theatre Presents: "Makbet" - Photo by
Photo by Thea Garlid

The venue for Makbet, Sure We Can — which has also become a recent home base for Dzieci’s perennial repertoire — is at once an unusual theater space, but undoubtedly perfect for this production. Makeshift structures are scattered among towers of cans and bottles, creating a timeless resonance between the itinerant Roma that influenced the aesthetic of the production, and the canning community that works out of Sure We Can locally today.

But the setting is more than a novelty, and reflects the company’s mission to authentically engage the community. Dzieci has a mission and longstanding practice of service work, and by regularly partnering with Sure We Can they help champion social inclusion of marginalized populations, and spread awareness of community-centered strategies to combat poverty. Such conceptual marriage of style and space is truly rare.

Once you’re inside the lot, you’re invited to sit around a fire and partake of the kielbasa, bread, and libations being liberally passed around by the ensemble. They trade off on guitar and leading all in song, keeping it light and putting themselves in front of the action, so that while we’re encouraged to participate, we’re never imposed upon. The sense of welcome is disarming, and the characters among them take natural shape first as strangers to us, then as fellow travelers, and finally friends.

Dzieci Presents: "Makbet" - Photo by Chris Cook
Photo by Chris Cook

But eventually it becomes time to enter “the box”. With a set of risers on either end and a narrow playing space in the center, the shipping container itself remains relatively untransformed. It isn’t until the door is closed and the ritual begins that the audience is transported.

The characters are symbolized by articles of clothing, that are exchanged among the three players (Megan Bones, Yvonne Brechbuhler, and Matt Mitler), facilitated by a chorus that flows between chamber choir, bit players, and stagehands to keep the swirling maelstrom alive and moving. Handheld practical lights and a single light above are all integrated effortlessly into the improvised staging that unfolds.

The three players begin, of course, as the Three Witches, before dissolving and reforming into the various characters and scenes of the play. This gives the entire show the sense that it’s being conjured before us, for whatever mysterious purpose these supernaturals may have. Throughout, the roiling movements of the ensemble through the central space evoke a bubbling cauldron; perhaps the audience is merely catching a glimpse of the portentous visions within the Witches’ brew?

It should be noted the masterful use of space, movement, and diegetic music are not a replacement for engaging the poetry of Shakespeare, but rather in addition to. Rule #1, “All actors must know the entire text” is quite a doozy, and the work to prepare has clearly only deepened each player’s relationship to the text. And as is so often the case with Shakespeare, when a performer has truly internalized them, the meaning and beauty of the lines ring ever more true.

As for the rest of the rules, especially Rule #3, “Roles can be taken or given, embraced or refused”, one might worry it could feel like a theatrical exercise rather than a compelling production in its own right. Any improvisational element strikes fear in an audience member particularly sensitive to the cringe.

Dzieci Presents: "Makbet" - Photo by Troy Hahn
Photo by Troy Hahn

But I suspect to the untrained eye, the unplanned staging that unfolded and near-constant role negotiations were completely seamless, and any overt craft was hidden under the unrelenting ebbs and flows of the story. And the only times it really showed were in mischievous smiles, and glints in the eyes of the performers as they took a favorite soliloquy or foisted a scene on one another. Absent was the terrified look deep in the eyes of inexperienced improvisers; that glint instead said volumes of, “Get a load of what I’m about to do.”

As the play comes to a close, and we return to the world, something special has been forged in the crucible of “the box”. The world opens up around us, and we hope to do the same. With an invitation to stick around, share more food and drink, and chat with each other and the ensemble, you wonder if the “ceremony” of Rule #5 referred to the incantations of the Weird Sisters that opened and closed the play, or this wonderful sense of earnest community Dzieci has built around the fire.

Nothing’s Perfect

Even when something is very good, there is no perfect theatrical experience. Obviously, not every show is suitable for every potential audience member, and Makbet is certainly no exception. If you prefer to make theater-going a comfortable evening of being entertained, or even a formal affair, then being asked to sit in a dark, musty shipping container or being offered handfuls of food may not be your speed. While I might firmly disagree with the worst takes on this, formal theater-going is perfectly valid and appropriate, and those who know their tastes concretely should steer clear. But then again, if there were ever a company to trust with site-specificity or paratheatrics, it’s Dzieci. If you want to be challenged or dabble, this might actually be perfect for you.

There are also some inherent pitfalls to the pacing and structure of the source material that Dzieci must contend with. It takes extra effort to engage us and track the comings and goings of Fleance, Macduff and the rest, when all we want at that point is to watch the contortions of Lady Macbeth and her husband’s downfall. To Dzieci’s credit, though, Makbet carries through the text’s slumps with the moment-to-moment intensity of the players, and the chorus’ carefully generated atmosphere.

Of course, since every performance is so different, none of the impressions described here may have any bearing on whatever a reader actually sees. But on the other hand, that’s a truth that should be kept in mind about any theater review — and in the end, laying theatrical truths bare is kind of what Dzieci Theatre does best.

And in the end, Makbet wouldn’t want to be perfect if it could.

All That Said: If you’re searching for something beautiful and real but don’t know where to look, in the world or in yourself, let Dzieci take your hand and give over to the magic.

– T. W.

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