When the actors of Dzieci Theater Company were learning the lines to Macbeth, artistic director Matt Mitler refused to let them look at scripts. He already knew the play thoroughly, and he taught each actor all the parts through oral transmission. During rehearsals and shows, the actors frequently switch roles, “like tag-team wrestling,” said Mitler. “It’s so compelling to do and to watch.”
Dzieci Theater Company will present Makbet, their Eastern European-flavored version of the Shakespeare tale of ambition and revenge, on Saturday, July 7, at 6 p.m., at Opus 40, at 50 Fite Road, Saugerties. Audience members will follow the actors around the vast environmental bluestone sculpture as scenes flow across the dry-stone ramps, pedestals, and platforms. On July 29, another theatrical event comes to Opus 40, as Centenary Stage Company performs the musical Hair, 50 years after its initial Broadway run.
In recent years, Opus 40 has hosted many concerts but few plays, said Tad Richards, who runs the site constructed by his stepfather, sculptor Harvey Fite. This year will mark the second performance of Makbet at the venue. “We’re very interested in having music or theater that’s site-specific, that really uses Opus 40 in original and interesting ways, as they did,” said Richards.
Fite was actually involved in theater before he became a sculptor. Originally from Texas, he received a scholarship to an upstate New York divinity school, St. Stephens College, where he found himself more drawn to the theater department than to religious studies. He took a trip to Woodstock, eager to audition for the renowned theater at the Maverick Art Colony. When told the theater already had plenty of more experienced male ingenues, he offered his skills as a plumber, electrician, and carpenter, which got him into the theater. He later toured in mustache-twirling melodramas.
The main drawback of theater was a lack of consistent activity for the intensely energetic Fite. One evening when he was waiting backstage for a cue, the wardrobe mistress dropped an empty spool. He took out his Texas penknife and started whittling. Thus the sculptor was born.
When St. Stephens became Bard College, Fite returned to the area and taught theater at the liberal arts school. He bought a disused quarry between Woodstock and Saugerties, a perfect setting for the massive sculptures he wanted to make. The fragments of quarry stone left on the property captured his imagination and became the elements of a unique, sprawling land sculpture.
“Harvey loved the theater,” said Richards. “Opus 40 is a very theatrical space, and that was conscious on his part.” In fact, he designed the open space in the back of the sculpture as an amphitheater, where Hair will be performed before a stationary audience.
For the New York City-based Makbet actors, accustomed to performing the play in living rooms or a shipping container, the size of the venue not only feels luxurious but changes the play from its usual presentation. In any case, the improvisational Dzieci style makes every performance unique. “Dzieci”, pronounced “DJE-chee,” is the Polish word for “child,” reflecting both the playfulness of the company’s experimental ethos and the heritage of that ethos, rooted in Mitler’s studies in Poland at director Jerzy Grotowski’s Polish LaboratoryTheater.
“Their work was transformative and investigative,” said Mitler. “One of their principal aims was to develop the actors’ bodies, voices, and emotions so they could enact anything and give it their total self. They had a methodology of stripping out everything that stood in the way, leaving the emotional, physical creature.”
Mitler has been fascinated by the mythological archetype of the trickster, an entity who destroys to make way for the new. “In some spiritual practices, it’s considered ‘holy destruction,’” Mitler explained, “from Baldr in the Norse myths to Jesus.” He began looking for characters who embodied the quick, facile, subversive qualities of the trickster, such as the Roma, the nomads of Eastern Europe, whom more settled people called by the derogatory name “gypsies.” “The Roma were characters who could go into any situation and come out on top, who were not beholden to societal laws but followed their own laws,” explained Mitler. “We began doing street theater events with these Old-World characters, speaking in Slavic accents. We found it liberating.”
In the search for a text that would embody destruction leading to creation, the company turned to Macbeth. They approach the play’s violence as a kind of ritual combat, designed to create a purifying catharsis for actors and audience.
Actors in Makbet wear costumes that evoke the period of World War II, when people might have been hiding, persecuted, risking death. Music, sung by the actors, includes Eastern European chants and hymns. Props are minimal, providing identifying characteristics that can be traded as the actors switch roles: a black hat for Macbeth, a red shawl for Lady Macbeth, all held within a giant soup tureen. Lighting consists of flashlights in the hands of the performers.
“We’ve been working on Makbet for 10 years,” said Mitler. “At Opus 40, one of the principal actors will be someone who’s never done it in front of the public before. The performance begins with a ritual and ends with a ritual. The show can be boisterous, hushed, or both. We don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Each winter, at the Old Dutch Church in Kingston, Dzieci presents Fool’s Mass, in which a group of physically and mentally handicapped medieval peasants enlist help from the audience in enacting a Christmas mass, which the peasants are responsible for due to the sudden death of their priest.
“Our spiritual approach differentiates us from other companies,” said Mitler. “Our aim is not theater, but theater serves the aim. We’ve spent time with countless spiritual communities: Sufis, Peruvian shamans, Native Americans, Hindus. The practice is to work on ourselves. Theater gives us an opportunity and a demand.”
Opus 40 presents Dzieci Theater Company’s Makbet on Saturday, July 7, at 6 p.m. Tickets are $15 in advance, $20 on the day of the performance. Centenary Stage Company will perform Hair on Sunday, July 29, at 1 pm. Admission is $30 in advance, $40 on the day of the performance. Tickets for both shows may be ordered through https://www.opus40.org or by calling 845-246-3400. Opus 40 is located at 50 Fite Road, Saugerties.