Breathe life into a stone: Macbeth at Opus 40

From the 2017 production of Makbet at Opus 40.

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.

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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.

There are 3 comments

  1. Miriam

    omg…where to begin? this is so problematic! first of all, we Roma are Not ‘characters’, we are an oppressed ethnic group that is constantly working to overcome the harmful and untrue stereotypes attached to our culture by those who would ignore our history, and use us to further their own romantic visions of what they want us to be. we are Not nomads, and we are Not all from Eastern Europe. while the majority of our people are settled today, our ancestors ‘traveled’ because they were forced, due to racism, and our desire to survive and thrive. even still, millions of Roma are To This Day denied housing, jobs, education, and a right to live with dignity – so please qualify the statement that “The Roma were characters who could go into any situation and come out on top”. and to continue that sentence, you claim we are “not beholden to societal laws but followed their own laws,” which is not only untrue, it is blatantly insulting to every Romani police officer in every country in which they serve (not to mention the rest of us law-abiding citizens). again, we are Not “Old-World characters”, we are your neighbors, your doctors, your lawyers, your fellow performers, your teachers, and might have been your audience members, but you have insulted us, and perpetuated the harmful lies about our culture that we have been working to eradicate, and as such, are Not our friends. such a shame that hv1 has proven itself to be complicit in this endeavor.

  2. William Bila

    As someone who is Roma, this really bothers me: “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. ”
    First of all, we are not nomads. Second of all this romantic perception of the “gypsy trickster” who comes out on top is a stereotype, as we can see in Italy today, they are counting and registering us like the Jews in Germany of the 1930s and in Ukraine we’ve had 7 pogroms against Roma in the last 2 months, with 2 dead thanks to neo Nazis. This is hardly coming out on top. We do not just follow our own laws; as if those were not in accordance with society is an antigypsysist assumption which leads to greater misunderstanding.

    While I applaud your efforts in finding liberating performance art forms, I implore you to reconsider if and how you might use Roma characters in any of your works in the future (to Dzieci Dance Company) and how you report stories about them (to Violet Snow) by doing a little bit of research and even consult with a Romani cultural organization, NGO or community association. We would love to provide you insight that can help avoid this type of perpetuation of stereotypes.

    Best regards,

  3. Jane Kelton

    Re: “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.”
    I understand that Mitler finds the idea of Roma as emodying a mythological archetype attractive; stereotypes are a handy shorthand for capturing audience attention and conveying a common idea quickly. Roma are present day people, however; they’re not “old world characters”. They’re a heterogeneous group; there are Roma all over the world with various occuptions, speaking different dialects, with different histories. Some are nomadic, but 90% of them are not. There’s lots of information available from Romani organizations and publications; We are the Romani People by Ian Hancock might be a good place to start. Roma are being persecuted in Ukraine, France, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Hungary, to name a few place. Discrimination, exclusion from housing and mainstream education, being driven out of settlements and villages — this is all going on in the present day. Characterizing Roma as “tricksters” who always “come out on top” is harmful; like any other people on earth, they just want to get on with life. There are better ways to describe the aims of this theatre group, rather than borrowing a cartoonish identity that has been forced on a given people and perpetuated ad nauseum. Experimental theatre seeks to disrupt and disturb, and owes its practices to precedents set by previous practitioners such as the aforementioned Grotowski, Peter Brook, The Living Theatre, Richard Schechner, and the like. Jane Kelton, M. Phil, NYU Dept. of Performance Studies ’93.

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