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Photo by Adam MartinThey're huddled around the TV sets tonight at Big's, an East Fullerton bar in the shadow of an industrial park alongside State College Boulevard. And for good reason. It's the second round of the NCAA men's college basketball tournament, and there's a war going on. Half of the bar's six TVs are tuned to hoops, the other half to CNN. American troops are about 100 miles from Baghdad. They're encountering the first real resistance from Iraqi forces. Americans are dying. Iraqis are dying. And things promise only to get bloodier.
You exit the back door at Big's, cross the small alley and walk into another bloody realm. It's a land of political assassination, betrayal and murder. Men are stabbed, children are drowned in pools of blood, and the only recourse is to keep killing until the people who want to kill you can kill no more.
It's a rehearsal for Macbeth, William Shakespeare's timeless tragedy of unchecked bloodlust. And while no one in the Hunger Artists cast or crew discusses any aspect of war or peace during rehearsal, it's impossible to avoid parallels between what's happening onstage and what's happening half a world away.
And that's what theater directors across the county experience these days, when it's proving impossible to ignore the bigger context.
In Macbeth, for example, political outcasts Malcolm (Chris Fowler) and Macduff (Mark Palkoner) have fled Scotland in fear of assassination by a bloody tyrant. They walk onstage and speak of seeking some desolate shade where they can weep their sad bosoms empty because "each new morn/new widows howl, new orphans cry, new sorrows strike heaven on the face."
And then there's the moment when Macduff describes his country writhing in a tyrant's gasp, and Malcolm replies, "I think our country sinks beneath the yoke; it weeps, it bleeds, and each new day a gash/is added to her wounds."
In the play, of course, the men are decrying the fate of ancient Scotland. Depending on where your sentiments lie, that line could well describe the countries ruled by Saddam Hussein or George W. Bush.
Theater is always an escape for souls on both sides of the fourth wall. For an audience, it's a way to get away from whatever you're feeling. For the cast and crew, it's a thoroughly effective way to sublimate one's feelings, to pour into a character all the anger, sorrow, fear and pain that one occasionally finds outside the theater.
But in times of crisis, theater becomes even more valuable to those people creating it because of its central paradox: this medium of make-believe is actually all about heightened reality and heightened emotion. It is art, as Picasso said in another context, that gets at the truth by telling a lie. And in times when the world feels like it's falling apart, the work becomes more critical.
Richard Brinsley Sheridan's The Rivalsis a far cry from Macbeth.It's a sentimental comedy about rival suitors chasing the same woman, best known for the character of Mrs. Malaprop. But Darcy Hogan, who directs the play for the Insurgo Theater Movement, says that even a play so removed from bloodshed and war resonates in these times.
"Although The Rivals is a comedy, its subtle anti-violence message has always appealed to me," Hogan said. "With the war now under way, I haven't changed my direction of the play, but I think the message will be more potent to both actors and patrons."
At Stages, Steve Mayeda is midway through rehearsals for James McLure's play The Day They Shot John Lennon, a composite look at how that day in 1980 affected a handful of very different characters. Mayeda, an aggressively anti-war soul who makes a habit of photographing every anti-war demonstration he possibly can (his camera proudly bears the signature of Martin Sheen), has tried to limit discussion of the war during rehearsal, primarily because most of his cast are so pro-war.
But there's a connection between the anti-war and pro-war demonstrations and Mayeda's play, which takes place in a huge crowd drawn to honor Lennon.
"I've told everyone in my cast that they should to go to one of these protests and stand in the crowd," said Mayeda. "They're about the largest gatherings of people in one place since [Lennon's death]. And there's an empowerment you gain in a crowd that you don't get anywhere else. Whether you want to riot or get laid, there's something about being in a crowd that makes you feel something you don't get on your own."
On the other side of town, Kelly Flynn, who is directing Macbeth, reports that his cast and crew aren't particularly obsessed with the war, which began the week before they open. Rehearsals are about the work, he says—running scenes and fixing problems. But for an outside observer spying on a rehearsal, it's impossible to turn a deaf ear to the incomparable power of Shakespeare's insights.
Take the most famous speech in Macbeth. After hearing of his wife's suicide, Macbeth (Mark Coyan) says life is "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."
You can feel the literary slap in the face from across the centuries. Sound and fury. Sturm and Drang.Shock and awe. Meaninglessness.
And then there's the personal effects of the carnage, typified by Macbeth's most famous image, that of the insane Lady Macbeth's (played by Kimberly Fisher) futile effort to wash blood from her hands.
She is us. In the moment, a betrayal, a murder or a war may seem the best courses of action. But there are repercussions no one can anticipate. Macbethis a reminder that once you unleash the dogs of war—or of jealousy or of vengeance—it's a bitch trying to rein them back in.
Later that night, you're back at Big's, this time for a beer. You glance at the TV. The war plays on.
Macbeth at the Hunger Artists Theater, 699-A S. State College Blvd., Fullerton, (714) 680-6803. Opens Fri. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m. Through April 27. $12-$15.
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