A trip to medieval Scotland in Highland Park

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Rochesterians wishing to travel to Scotland this summer can be transported there from the Highland Park Bowl. No tickets, luggage, or ancient rituals (like in the show “Outlander) are required. Just take a seat in the amphitheater, and when the clock strikes eight, you’ll be spirited away from the forests of Frederick Law Olmstead to those of medieval Scottish kings.

Image design by Matt Moore.

Hosted by the Monroe County Parks Department, this magic portal is being installed by Rochester Community Players: Shakespeare Program. The company will present “Macbeth”in the Highland Bowl from July 12-27.

The oldest community theater in New York, the Rochester Community Players first performed in 1925 at the German House on Gregory Street. From 1926 to 1984, they owned the Playhouse on South Clinton Avenue, which is now the location of the restaurant/arcade Swillburger. 

RCP’s Shakespeare Program, now celebrating its 25th year, presents a show in Highland Park in the summer and other productions at the Multi-use Community Cultural Center. RCP also has an Irish Program, which presents a play by an Irish or Irish-American writer in the spring and then travels with that production to the Acting Irish International Theatre Festival, and it is home to the Rochester Shakespeare Literary Society.

According to RCP’s production history, this is the third time the Shakespeare Program has staged “Macbeth,” but the first time at the Highland Bowl. Co-Production Manager Jeffery Jones describes the play as a good fit for the outdoor venue since it is accessible and well-known, containing a number of “recognizable lines.” (It’s satisfying to hear familiar phrases like “milk of human kindness,” “sound and fury,” and “sleep no more” while watching the play.) The company also was looking to do “something darker” this year rather than a comedy, Jones says.

The director of “Macbeth”is Jean Gordon Ryon, who is literary associate/dramaturg at Geva Theatre Center and whose credits include many plays for RCP’s Irish Program as well as “Romeo and Juliet” and “Much Ado about Nothing.” 

“Our production of Macbeth takes place in medieval Scotland,” Ryon states in an RCP press release, “a world just emerging from the Dark Ages, where civilization is underscored with violence and ruthlessness, and sinister unknowable elements toy with the destinies of man.”

Given the popularity of “Game of Thrones,” “Outlaw King” and “The Last Kingdom” on TV, stories set in the Middle or Dark Ages—full of ruthless characters and sinister forces—may feel quite recognizable to audiences. Those less interested in Shakespeare may still be captivated by the fast-paced action in Macbeth: King Duncan of Scotland has two fearless generals named Macbeth and Banquo, who save the kingdom in a great battle. 

After the fighting, these two meet a group of witches, who suggest that Macbeth will rise in rank to become Thane of Cawdor and then king, and that Banquo’s descendants will be kings. Their ambitions inflamed, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, his wife, seize on this prediction and accelerate it by murdering Duncan. More murders follow, with Banquo and his son among the targets. With the support of the English, Duncan’s son Malcolm and a lord named Macduff prepare to challenge Macbeth. While external forces organize against them, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth steadily destroy themselves—and drag down the kingdom—in their guilt and madness. 

At a June 24 rehearsal, the actors playing Lady Macbeth and Macbeth, Lauren Kay MacDonough and Ged Owen, talked about the play. 

“I like the way Shakespeare writes women characters, especially Lady (Macbeth), because she is not just a damsel,” MacDonough says. “She’s got a mission, she has strength.”

Describing the challenges of the role, she says, “It is an interesting thing … to try and figure out how to descend into madness.” 

Early in the process, Owen says, his role seemed “completely daunting—not just the amount of lines … but finding the full arc of … how he slowly unravels.”

Macbeth (Ged Owen) and Lady Macbeth (Lauren Kay MacDonough) contemplate murder. Photo by Ken Dauer.

This unraveling extends to the characters’ marriage, which both actors describe as strong early on. While they may disagree on details, the husband and wife are united in their desire to kill the king. 

Asked about the violence they commit, McDonough says, “I think my ambition is such that it doesn’t matter. I’ll do whatever it takes.” 

As Owen and MacDonough convey vividly in rehearsal, the characters’ plotting—with its erotic charge, self-justification, and exhilaration—is chilling to observe. But as they gain the throne, their bond weakens. 

“As the murder happens,” Owen says, “we distance more and more and more, and you see me starting to hide information from her.” 

Lady Macbeth is increasingly unsettled by her husband’s failure to follow their plans and his erratic behavior in public. They each fall apart, isolated from one another. 

As Macbeth proves to be a tyrant, the play shows the precarious situation of people living with an out-of-control ruler. As a Scottish lord named Caithness observes in act 5, scene 2, “Some say he’s mad; others that lesser hate him / Do call it valiant fury; but for certain / He cannot buckle his distemper’d cause / Within the belt of rule.” A ruler’s crimes are also hard to punish: “What need we fear / who knows it, when none can call our pow’r to / accompt,” Lady Macbeth tells herself in act 5, scene 1.

But there is an accounting for the two. In their eagerness to realize the prophecy of the witches—who, in Owen’s words, are “tricksters” rather than figures with “full power of the fate of things”—they find despair. In act 5, scene 5, Macbeth expresses his sense of the futility of life through a magnificent (and bleak) comparison to acting in a play: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, / And then is heard no more.” 

Macduff (James Heath) seeks revenge on Macbeth (Ged Owen). Photo by Ken Dauer

With hopelessness and murder and witches—who cook up hideous concoctions in their cauldron, tormenting not only Macbeth but regular folks in the kingdom—“Macbethis a haunting play. These elements may be amplified in the Highland Bowl, as the park intermingles with the set designed by Ken Dauer. Staging this production outdoors allows the natural darkening of light to parallel the darkening of the story and lends special significance to the surrounding trees during the play’s final battle, RCP says.

The cast and crew have been rehearsing indoors, with tape marking the locations of a fire pit (the witches’ cauldron) and a semicircle of platforms that will jut into the air at varying heights (suggesting, the press release says, “a stone or wooden henge”). MacDonough and Owen, who have both acted in Highland Park before, look forward to moving onto the set. 

“It’s always a big leap from rehearsal space to the Bowl. It’s such a different size,” MacDonough says. 

When the trees of Birnam forest advance on his stronghold at Dunsinane Castle, Owen’s Macbeth will be standing on an 8-foot-tall platform, in the dark of night—one of the thrilling moments to come on our trip to Scotland in Highland Park.

RCP’s “Macbeth” will play in the Highland Bowl at 8 p.m., every night except Mondays, from July 12-27. The show is free, open to the public, and family-friendly. 

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