That Play: A Solo Macbeth
"Macbeth" is one of Shakespeare’s most oft-told tales, and something about it seems to inspire unorthodox adaptations. New York stages have seen everything from "Tiny Ninja Macbeth" (yes, "Macbeth" acted out with plastic toy ninjas) to "MacHomer" (in which the tragedy is populated with characters from "The Simpsons"), and for two years the Off-Broadway production "Sleep No More" has even made it possible for playgoers to walk among the Macbeths and MacDuffs in an interactive theater space.
At this moment, there are even two completely different one-man productions of "Macbeth" playing. Alan Cumming’s version has the more high-profile Broadway berth, but Tom Gualtieri’s, titled "That Play: A Solo Macbeth" and currently playing at Stage Left Studio, came first.
Gualtieri, who co-adapted his "Macbeth" with director Heather Hill, began developing the piece in 1998. "That Play" debuted at the Midtown International Theatre Festival in 2003 with a sold-out engagement and has had a number of well-received runs in New York since then. Its Stage Left production kept extending last fall, and now it’s back -- and with good reason. In a world of "Macbeths," this is one of the best versions yet.
In case you have managed to miss ’the Scottish play’ in its many incarnations, "Macbeth" is about a celebrated military general who, upon learning from three mysterious sisters that he is fated to be king, begins working with his ambitious wife to make the prophecy a reality...and leaving a lot of dead bodies along the way.
In a brisk 80 minutes that never feels rushed, Tom Gualtieri captures the intensity, menace, pathos, and even the humor of this great tragedy. It may seem like a lot for one man to take on, but he approaches it as any great storyteller would, inhabiting each character fully and building momentum as the tale moves to its bloody end.
Something unique that "That Play" brings to "Macbeth" is a narrator. While not always the most welcome device in a play, here it is well used as a way of bringing the audience right into the action and allowing Gualtieri to move between scenes with ease. The narrator, who seems to just be the performer himself commenting on the action, is a charming and easygoing presence that provides some perspective on the play. For someone new to Shakespeare, "That Play" may actually be one of the best possible introductions, since the narration brings added clarity to a tale that, for the uninitiated, may be a little hard to follow with all of its many thanes, witches, and murders.
Gualtieri does a marvelous job of creating the various people (and witches and ghosts) that populate the world of the tragedy. Different voices and postures clearly delineate the characters, making it easy to determine who is speaking at any given time. With just the placement of a hand on a hip or a lift of the fabric of his costume, he switches from one person to another.
Gualtieri plays nearly 20 characters in all, from the eerie witches, to truly menacing murderers-for-hire, to Lord and Lady Macbeth themselves. His delivery of the rich Shakespearean text is effortlessly beautiful. You can sense that Gualtieri has been performing this piece for a long time, as his transformations and recitations seem so natural.
In "That Play," Gualtieri and co-creator Heather Hill demonstrate a special interest in the theme of hidden thoughts and dark desires, something that the audience is even encouraged to examine within themselves. It’s a worthwhile idea to explore in an adaptation of "Macbeth," where we watch a seemingly good man go bad when his ambition for power takes hold of him. It makes us question of what we ourselves -- or the people we trust -- might be capable. Hopefully none of us will ever make our darkest secret hopes manifest, but we can at least enjoy watching Tom Gualtieri act out the tragic demise of one who did.