Chris Stezin cut his teeth professionally as an actor doing Shakespeare for about six years all over the country, which instilled in him a deep reverence for the work.
“I started performing Shakespeare in college and then worked a lot as a professional,” he says. “I think there’s no better training for an actor. I was lucky, and didn’t know how lucky I was.”
During a conversation with Keegan Theatre’s Associate Artist Director Susan Marie Rhea about the Bard, she astutely told him that the best way to do Shakespeare there would be as an updated version of one of his plays.
“That struck a chord with me, and we started talking about what would be one of the better plays to make that happen with,” Stezin says. “We thought that Macbeth would be the one that could be really great, and it brought me to start writing Mack, Beth.”
His original piece, which will be staged at Keegan Jan. 21 through Feb. 11, reimagines Shakespeare’s ultimate power couple for the cyber age. The story is a modern, razor sharp tale with all the complex characters, intrigue, and taut storytelling that audiences expect from this classic tale of greed and unbridled ambition.
“I read it again to refresh myself but I didn’t want to do a slavish recreation of it,” Stezin says. “I wanted to write it in the spirit of Shakespeare, who took a lot of well-known material and used it as a jumping-off point. A lot of his plays were stories people were familiar with but he told them in his own way and wasn’t shy about changing what he needed to make it work for him and his audience.”
Once he finished re-reading the original Macbeth, the playwright let the story percolate a bit before getting to work.
“The idea first came up in 2010. I was watching a lot of Mad Men at the time and it hit me that that milieu would make for a great Macbeth,” he says. “I felt the high-stakes business world would be a great setting for this thing going forward. I looked at what the modern day equivalent of what Shakespeare’s violence would be in the business setting, and I was off and running.”
Mack, Beth was developed through First Draft at The Rose Theatre Co., where the two-time Helen Hayes-nominated playwright (Hoboken Station and What Dogs Do) is a playwright-in-residence.
“The story focuses on this couple who are driven by their ambition to take what they feel is their due and they set about to do just that and take over a company in the most bloodlessly brutal way that they can go about doing it,” he says. “They feel greatness is their destiny and do it for no other reason.”
A modern version of the classic is one way that Keegan Theatre hopes to attract younger audiences to the theater, and Stezin feels it can also bring some attention to Sir William and his works, as well.
“I certainly hope it will appeal to more young people, because it is completely modern,” he says. “Some of the things they might think of as musty, like the archaic language, are not present. You don’t need any knowledge of the original to enjoy this one, and if it leads them back to the original, so much the better.”
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January 21 – February 11, 2017
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Stezin says that unfortunately, it’s in fashion these days to have a disdain for Shakespeare, such as students at the University of Pennsylvania showed recently by taking down a large portrait of the iconic writer.
“To me, he’s still the best there’s ever been and probably ever will be,” he says. “In college, there was a group called the Actors From the London Stage, which was five actors on a bare stage who were cream of the crop performers. I saw them do Tempest and Much Ado About Nothing, and it was utterly transporting for two and a half hours and it instilled my first love of Shakespeare.”
He’s hoping that Mack, Beth audiences not only walk away having been entertained, but that they think about some of the deep themes that are woven throughout.
“Themes about how modern media shapes events and shapes people’s lives, and obviously not always for the better,” Stezin says. “How the forms that violence takes in this day and age, we don’t necessarily have to resort to physical violence to get what we want. These other forms it takes and how it can be almost as brutal.”
Once the show is up and running, Stezin is thinking about turning his attention to another of Shakespeare’s classics, with an idea to turn Hamlet into something for the 21st century.
Mack, Beth stars Andrew Keller as William MacIlraith (Mack) and Jennifer J. Hopkins as Elizabeth Wright MacIlraith (Beth). Others in the cast include William Aitken, Josh Sticklin, Izzy Smelkinson, Emily Cerwonka, Tyasia Velines, Autumn Seavey Hicks, Sarah Holt and Karin Rosnizeck.