Tuesday, June 13, 2006
Caution be damned. The three women playing the Weird Sisters in the Shakespeare in the Park production of "Macbeth," previews of which begin tomorrow night, are not afraid to utter the scariest word in the history of theater. They do not fear the two modest syllables, the seven measly letters that have inspired heebie-jeebies among actors and directors for 400 years.
Listen and learn, you cowering simps. These women will just come right out and say it: "Macbeth."
Correction. They are a little afraid of the word. Hold on. Maybe they are more than a little afraid. Except that "afraid" doesn't quite capture it. What's the right way to put this? They are mildly creeped out by the word "Macbeth." Still, they are saying it.
"I heard of a guy who was playing Macbeth who was run over by a car," says Lynn Cohen, who plays Weird Sister 3, as the character is listed in the program.
"Oh my God," gasps Ching Valdes-Aran, Weird Sister 2.
"I heard of another Macbeth who was shot in the jaw," says Joan MacIntosh, aka WS1. "The actors were coming out of a restaurant, I think."
This is what happens when theater people gather to discuss what is arguably Shakespeare's goriest tragedy. They share "Macbeth" horror stories, which are all about freak accidents and perforated bowels. By universal consensus, "Macbeth" is the unluckiest play ever written, a work so fiasco-plagued, so thoroughly jinxed that it is considered bad form -- nay, it is considered flat-out reckless -- to speak its title aloud.
"Most people call it 'The Scottish Play.' Or 'Mackers,' " says MacIntosh. "I know people who wouldn't be caught dead saying anything but Mackers."
But here's the tricky part: What if you are actually performing "Macbeth"? Then what do you do? The guy's name is all over the text. You can't just substitute "Scottish Play" every time he's mentioned, can you?
A few weeks ago, the newly hired cast members of this production, including the Macbeth of the show, Liev Schreiber, confronted this very question. When they gathered to introduce themselves in a rehearsal room at the Public Theater, the force behind Shakespeare in the Park, there was a lot of "Hello, my name is so-and-so, and I play so-and-so in the Scottish play." Nobody spoke the unspeakable. Not until the Public's artistic director, Oskar Eustis, explained that the superstition did not apply to anyone involved in a production while it is being produced.
This makes practical sense. But if you avoided black cats your whole life it might be hard, one day, to take home a dozen, even if someone told you that black cats, at least for a limited time, are just pets. An irrational fear in motion tends to stay in motion. Superstitions have a momentum all their own.