By Alexis Soloski
By Molly Grogan
By R. C. Baker
By Christian Viveros-Fauné
By Alexis Soloski
By Alexis Soloski
By Lilly Lampe
Twenty-seven years ago, Alan Cumming made his professional theater debut, appearing as Malcolm in a Glaswegian Macbeth. This summer, he'll return to the tragedy, reprising his turn as the disinherited Malcolm at the Lincoln Center Festival. In addition to Malcolm, Cumming will also play Malcolm's brother Donalbain and his murdered father, Duncan. The usurping Macbeth? Cumming will play him, too—also his wife, messengers, doctors, attendants, porters, three witches, various lords, and Birnam Wood.
Beginning July 5, Lincoln Center will host the Scottish play—whose dramatis personae lists some three dozen roles—as performed by just one Scottish actor. Set in an insane asylum replete with CCTV, this Macbeth will also feature actors playing a nurse and an orderly. But Cumming, as a disturbed patient compelled to repeat Macbeth, will voice every role. "It's a spooky old play," says John Tiffany, associate director of the National Theatre of Scotland, which will co-produce the show.
Speaking by phone during a 36-hour visit to New York, Cumming says he has always wanted to return to the script and, in particular, the lead role. "I'm not obsessed," he drawls in his winning Northern Scots accent, "but there are plays where I've thought at some point in my life, I'd like to do this part, do this character. I've always thought that about Macbeth in some form. Now I'm doing it in all forms."
This production reunites Cumming and Tiffany, who last collaborated on a racy, sexy version of Euripides' The Bacchae, which played the Lincoln Center Festival in 2008. Neither has been exactly lazy in the meantime. Tiffany directed the much-lauded docudrama Black Watch as well as the musical Once, which topped the Tony list with 11 nominations. Cumming earned two Emmy nominations for his work on The Good Wife, voiced a Smurf, hosted Masterpiece Mystery, and so on. Andrew Goldberg, head of New York's Shakespeare Gym and a staff director on Black Watch, will co-direct.
Not every director would think to cast Cumming in the title role. Macbeth, a Scottish lord, begins the play as a formidable, battle-hardened soldier, seemingly worlds away from the sly and epicene characters Cumming often prefers. Cumming, though, insists that this shouldn't bar him from the role. "I think it's more about what interesting things the performer brings to the character, their aesthetic, their experience," he says. Besides, he adds, "I think I am a warrior, just not a warrior in a fisticuffs way."
Still, Cumming has been engaging in intense training—"Big time!"—to render his physique more Macbeth-like. He says he has "changed my body to be leaner and stronger, more soldierly, more defined, more cut."
But Macbeth, no matter how ripped, is merely one character among many. Fortunately, Cumming is an unusually versatile actor, as a trawl through his photo archive or a glimpse at his blog reveals. To speak only of his New York stage roles, he has played parts as varied as The Bacchae's vengeful god, Cabaret's cheeky MC, and The Seagull's reckless Trigorin—riveting in each and able to move from mischief to pathos with a blink of his light brown eyes.
Tiffany, speaking just before the opening of a new play in Glasgow, noted Cumming's range. "He's mercurial," Tiffany says. "He's seductive." Depending on the role, Cumming can look masculine, feminine, friendly, scary, sexy, sleazy, or geeky. He rarely sports the same coiffure twice and has already acquired a Macbeth-appropriate haircut even before rehearsals begin.
"I've been so bored of my middle-aged man hair on The Good Wife," he grouses. "It was so great when I told them I was going to have quite a weird haircut for Macbeth. Probably I'll just chop it all off when I go back." As he wanted "something that can look unkempt," yet also "slick," he opted for a cut long on the top with a short back and sides. "I wanted it to look a little odd."
Cumming's original idea for the production might have required a rather different haircut or perhaps a couple of wigs. Several years ago, having read a Sigmund Freud essay in which the psychoanalyst insisted that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are parts of the same person, Cumming approached Tiffany with a concept in which the actors playing Macbeth and his lady would alternate roles every other night.
Tiffany, a director of new writing, had never attempted Shakespeare before, but Cumming eventually brought him around. Tiffany invited Goldberg, a Shakespeare expert, into the mix, and last year, they sponsored a reading in which they tried Cumming's proposed role-switching. Either it didn't work at all, or it worked too well: Tiffany and Goldberg ultimately suggested that Cumming should take on not merely two of the roles, but all of them.
No one involved can properly explain what led them to then re-set the play in a mental institution. Cumming speaks of the play's concerns with "madness, hallucination, visions," while Tiffany, who confesses a fondness for horror films, notes that the play contains perhaps the earliest dramatic depiction of obsessive-compulsive disorder in Lady Macbeth's hand washing. But don't think of Cumming as crazy for attempting the project. One-man Hamlets have popped up previously, most recently by the English actor Stephen Dillane.
Cumming, Tiffany, and Goldberg will have an unusually generous rehearsal period to work out the characters and the setting. "I've got six weeks where I'm going to be in a rehearsal room with John and Andy and voice and movement people," Cumming says. "So I'm just trying to be clear and focused and open." As Cumming has recently recorded the audiobook for a novelization of Macbeth, he already has some ideas for the voices he'll use, though he cites passages such as the banquet scene as a particular challenge. "A lot of people are talking!"
Cumming will also have to find unique postures and gestures for each individual character. He hints at an unusual analogue for Lady Macbeth: Martha Stewart and the vigor with which she prepared a salad on live TV when the news of her insider-trading scandal broke. He says that in the heat of the banquet scene, as Lady Macbeth struggles to calm her husband and the lords, "I think of Martha."
There are other challenges, too, such as the alleged curse associated with the play. Theatrical legend has it that an unusual number of injuries and deaths have visited revivals of Macbeth, and elaborate rituals—many of which involve spinning counterclockwise and cursing—have been designed as countermeasures.
But with so many roles to verbalize and physicalize, Cumming prefers, like Macbeth himself, to tempt fate. "I'd be forever going outside and spinning around three times and swearing and spitting," he says. "I can't be dealing with that."
Rose Theater, Lincoln Center, July 5 through 14, lincolncenterfestival.org
'As You Like It'
Performances begin June 5
'Into the Woods'
Performances begin July 23
Is the Central Park ramble ready for its close-up? This summer, the surroundings of Shakespeare in the Park will play two different roles: the welcoming forest of Arden in As You Like It and the more sinister giant-laden thicket in a revival of Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods. Of course, theater is not accomplished with trees alone, so the flora will be joined by the likes of Lily Rabe as Rosalind and Stephen Spinella as Jacques in As You Like It, with original music by Steve Martin; and Amy Adams as the Baker's Wife and Donna Murphy as the Witch in Into the Woods, directed by Timothy Sheader. The Delacorte Theater in Central Park, publictheater.org
Performances begin June 6
Come and knock on their door/They've been waiting for you/Where the kisses are hers and hers and his and very likely intensely discomfiting and hyperreal. The new David Adjmi play, 3C, directed by Jackson Gay and co-produced by Rising Phoenix and Piece by Piece, concerns Brad, a distressed Vietnam vet who attempts a housing arrangement with the nubile Connie and Linda. Adjmi cites his inspirations as 1950s existentialist comedy, Chekhov, disco anthems, and a certain 1970s network comedy that obsessed him as a child. But if we know Adjmi, who likes to strip away social veneers to expose violent tragedy, expect that laugh track to turn troubling—and possibly bloody. Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, 224 Waverly Place, 3CthePlay.com 'Uncle Vanya'
Performances begin June 7
Playwright Annie Baker and director Sam Gold are spending the summer in the country, but that isn't as soothing as it sounds. They'll be sojourning among the disappointed, the disaffected, the loveless, the hopeless, the unfulfilled and unhappy and unwise—the whole Chekhovian gang as Baker offers a new adaptation of Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya at Soho Rep. Working from a literal translation, Baker aims to "unearth the grammar and colloquialisms omitted in existing English versions." If their production, which stars Reed Birney, Maria Dizzia, and Michael Shannon, leaves you feeling insufficiently hapless, you can double dip with another Vanya later this summer, this one starring Hugo Weaving and Cate Blanchett, courtesy of the Lincoln Center Festival. Soho Rep, 46 Walker Street, sohorep.org
Performances begin June 8
Whether you're for or against our current wars, surely you want to support our troops. But would you really want to adopt one? That's the premise of Ethan Lipton's Luther, one of three plays in Clubbed Thumb's Summerworks season. Lipton, a playwright and troubadour, recently scored a hit with No Place To Go, a semiautobiographical song cycle about an office slob downsized when his company moves to Mars. He lends that same playful melancholy and slanted vision to this comedy, directed by Ken Rus Schmoll, about a bourgeois couple who bring home a troubled vet. The Summerworks season continues with Peggy Stafford's Motel Cherry, co-produced with New Georges. Here Arts Center, 145 Sixth Avenue, here.org
Ice Factory Festival
Performances begin June 27
The Ice Factory moniker was always a massive misnomer for the annual summer festival at the old Ohio Theatre. Many of the shows were cool, sure, but the lack of air-conditioning made for a sweaty celebration. But newly ensconced on Christopher Street, with working HVAC, the festival might prove icier than ever. This year's six productions include Everywhere Theatre Group's Flying Snakes in 3-D, in which serpents attack young thespians; Godlight Theatre Company's Pilo Family Circus, which centers on sadistic clowns; and Bekah Brunstetter's Miss Lilly Gets Boned, which seems fairly self-explanatory. The New Ohio Theatre, 154 Christopher Street, newohiotheatre.org
Performances begin July 3
Does PTP/NYC suffer from seasonal affective disorder in reverse? Every summer, this New York wing of the Potomac Theatre Project celebrates the solstice with a repertory schedule composed of the darkest and most despairing dramas imaginable. Its vision of summer nights: murder, suicide, rape, madness. This year, you can add financial malfeasance and corpse-robbing to that list. PTP co-artistic director Cheryl Faraone leads off with a revival of Caryl Churchill's slick and cunning Serious Money, about a crisis in London's City, which is soon joined by Neal Bell's chilling Frankenstein adaptation, Monster, directed by Jim Petosa, also co-artistic director. The Atlantic Stage 2, 330 West 16th Street, potomactheatreproject.org
Performances begin July 5
The latest wave of Irish émigrés comes courtesy of Galway's Druid Theatre Company at the Lincoln Center Festival. Having previously arrived on our shores with plays by J.M. Synge and Sean O'Casey, Druid returns with a cycle of three plays by the lesser-known playwright Tom Murphy, helmed by Tony winner Garry Hynes. Ranging in time from the 1840s to the 1970s, these plays explore the repercussions of emigration on individuals, families, and a nation. You can see each play on its own or view three in a single day, with ample breaks for the imbibing of stout and soda bread. Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College,899 Tenth Avenue, lincolncenterfestival.org
'The Merry Wives of Windsor'
Performances begin July 5
Performances begin July 27
Does your turn signal tick in iambic pentameter? Are your windshield wipers swishes of stichomythia, every honk of your horn an anguished soliloquy? Then you, dear driver, should pull in for the summer season of Shakespeare in the Park(ing) Lot. All performances are held in the Municipal Parking Lot at the corner of Ludlow and Broome, and tickets are free, though if you treat the show as a drive-in, you will have to pay the Muni Meter. This summer, Drilling Company artistic director Hamilton Clancy takes on comedy and tragedy, wringing pathos and dodging traffic in The Merry Wives of Windsor and Coriolanus. Municipal Parking Lot, at Ludlow and Broome streets, shakespeareintheparkinglot.com
Performances begin August 24
Playwright Lisa D'Amour has carved out a downtown niche. Well, two of them, actually. First, she made a splash as an architect of darkly baroque dreams like Red Death and 16 Spells to Charm the Beast. Yet she also became known for her playful, elliptical, feminine performance works, conceived in collaboration with Katie Pearl. Now she has moved several blocks uptown and turned her hand to a new form: naturalism. Detroit takes place in the backyards of adjoining suburban houses and concerns two couples in financial free fall. Anne Kaufmann directs the bickering and barbecues. Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street, playwrightshorizons.org
'If There Is I Haven't Found It Yet'
Performances begin August 24
Anyone who has ever been tempted to lick his or her computer or television screen when Jake Gyllenhaal's face appeared upon it will now have a chance to enjoy the swoony actor in three dimensions. Although Gyllenhaal made his stage debut many years ago in London, he has yet to grace the New York boards. But that will change when Gyllenhaal appears at the Roundabout Theatre in Nick Payne's drama as Terry, an aimless uncle who befriends his fat and friendless 15-year-old niece. Payne, a playwright increasingly lauded in his native London, writes small, quiet plays with disproportionately large impacts. Michael Longhurst, who helmed a much-praised production of Payne's Constellations, directs. Laura Pels Theatre, 111 West 46th Street, roundabouttheatre.org