Tennessee Shakespeare finds bucolic park good setting for eerie 'Macbeth'

Vanessa Morosco and Tony Molina as the Macbeths in Tennessee Shakespeare Company's production of 'Macbeth' outdoors at the Wooden O Amphitheatre in Shelby Farms Park.

Courtesy Tennessee Shakespeare Company

Vanessa Morosco and Tony Molina as the Macbeths in Tennessee Shakespeare Company's production of "Macbeth" outdoors at the Wooden O Amphitheatre in Shelby Farms Park.

Nobody seemed distracted by the clan warfare taking place in Shelby Farms last Sunday afternoon. Perhaps the joggers, disc golfers, cross-country runners and picnickers were blinded by sunshine, or simply had better things to do than investigate the sounds of bagpipes and drums rising over a certain hill, conspicuous for its gloomy castle turret perched upon the crest.

The shouts of angry men failed to draw onlookers to the scene of mortal combat on the leeward side.

“Damned be him that first cries: ‘Hold, Enough!’ a man’s voice shouted, followed by the clashing of swords.

Had anyone bothered to check out the noise, they might have been troubled by the sight of one man hacking, stabbing and slicing away at another with a broadsword.

Shelby Farms, as it turns out, just might be the perfect place for murder in broad daylight.

But then, as the actors practicing their fight choreography would acknowledge, “Macbeth” is a play best served in the dark.

Tennessee Shakespeare Company opens its fourth season this weekend with an eerie tragedy that befits a bucolic setting on a chilly October night.

So bring a tartan blanket and “screw your courage to the sticking place” — “Macbeth” (a.k.a. “The Scottish Tragedy“) takes its cues from witches, features one of Shakespeare’s most treacherous female roles and is heavy on bloodletting.

Dan McCleary, Tennessee Shakespeare Company producing artistic director, hopes Shelby Farms’ Circle O Amphitheater holds promise as a regular location for a Shakespeare in the park series.

“We are committed to doing Shakespeare in the outdoors,” McCleary says. “And working out here for the past few weeks, we’ve really experienced the hidden treasures of Shelby Farms — the animals that come creeping around and the night sounds that add to the atmosphere of the play.”

Until the company can find a permanent venue, it continues to put on shows in locations that bring Shakespeare to life in ways that traditional theaters can’t. Previous works include a “Romeo and Juliet” set at the Dixon Gallery and Gardens, “Othello” in a church, and “Julius Caesar” in Germantown’s City Hall.

The company is working with the Shelby Farms Conservancy to renovate the once-derelict Wooden O Amphitheater. The space is carved into the side of a hill and bordered by a wall of railroad ties.

“We’ve put in about $18,000 worth of improvements to the amphitheater,” McCleary says. “We regraded the ground, pulled up concrete footers that were once used for benches and rebuilt some of the ties. Part of the contract we have is to make the existing stage safe. We hope to leave behind a safe, playable space that other organizations can use when we aren’t.”

The site is also a technical challenge for the company, which had to bring in a large generator for the lights and sound, and restrooms for patrons.

“Depending on how well we do this season, we could make more improvements to the amphitheater, like adding permanent electrical hook ups,” McCleary says.

The group is not, he says, giving up on the idea of a permanent “Shakespeare Park” in Germantown, where the professional theater company could work in residence year round. But until the financing comes together, the company will continue to explore different venues.

McCleary says that outdoor theater is similar to how people would experience Shakespeare in Elizabethan times, particularly with regard to the intensity of the spoken word. The company will also perform “The Tempest” at the amphitheater in the spring.

Two additional shows, Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory,” and Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie,” have been added to the season as well. Both will be held at the Dixon Gallery. McCleary says that he wants the company’s mission to extend to plays by southern writers.

“No Shakespeare company in America is exclusively devoted to Shakespeare,” he says. “I feel like the southern voice gets short shrift around the country and we have an opportunity to juxtapose classical Shakespearean works with classical American works.”

“Macbeth,” he says, is no doubt an exciting play to experience in the fall because it has the reputation for being a “haunted house show.”

“While that can be fun,” McCleary says, “the real horror is in the psyche of a good, ethical, even ‘holy’ man always being aware of his descent both morally and metaphysically. While the word ‘blood’ gets used in the play luxuriously, so does the word ‘grace.’ Grace is our company’s way into the piece and, we hope, a healthy and even enlightening way out for all of us.”

“Macbeth,” by Tennessee Shakespeare Company

Performances are at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 7:30 p.m. Sunday at the Wooden O Amphitheater in Shelby Farms. Other performances are 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 7:30 p.m. Sundays through Oct. 23. Tickets are $25 in advance, $30 day of show. Call (901) 759-0604.

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