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THEATER / NANCY CHURNIN : ‘Macbeth’ Is King of the Drama Circuit These Days

D ouble, double, toil and trouble . Not one “Macbeth,” but four stories about the man who killed to be king are about to descend on San Diego.

Michael Harvey, a professor of drama at San Diego State University, who’s directing the first “Macbeth” of the season tonight, thinks San Diego and the country as a whole are going through what he termed “a cycle of ‘Macbeths.’ ”

In the year since he announced his selection of the play, he said, he has noticed several such productions on the boards nationally, including a Kabuki “Macbeth” in Denver and a production done in an empty swimming pool spread with white sheets in Arizona. Pans of stage blood surrounded the sheets, and people had to dip their bare feet into the blood before walking into the pool, leaving a bizarre pattern of bloody footprints on the cloth.

“I’m sure part of it has to do with the political implications of the play,” Harvey said. “The lust for power, unbridled ambition--all of the abuses of power today which are having reverberations.”

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The productions promise to be as different as the directors interpreting Shakespeare’s shortest and bloodiest play. Without altering a line at SDSU’s Don Powell Theatre, Harvey plans to stage the drama as a play within a play by a community that uses the “Macbeth” story as a ritualistic exorcism of evil.

Next up is the Chula Vista Free Shakespeare Festival production at Bonita Vista High School on March 18-April 29, a presentation that drops the couldsts and wouldsts for coulds and woulds in a text shortened and revised by Keith A. Anderson. Des McAnuff, artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse, unveils his vision of Shakespeare’s tragedy Oct. 25-Nov. 26 at the Mandell Weiss Center for the Performing Arts.

And then there’s Roman Polanski’s “Macbeth” on April 5, part of the retrospective of Polanski films at the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Arts. This version, considered the most violent imagining of “Macbeth” ever, was the first work directed by Polanski after the brutal murder of his wife, Sharon Tate, by the Charles Manson family.

For Anderson and Greg Kahn, who organized the retrospective, the preponderence of “Macbeth” productions really is coincidence. Anderson chose it because “Macbeth” and “Julius Caesar” are the Shakespeare plays most widely assigned to high school students.

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Polanski’s “Macbeth” is showing at the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art because all of Polanski’s 12 movies made it into the retrospective.

For McAnuff, however, the choice of the play was both political and personal.

He once said that “Macbeth” conjures up for him images of the Kennedy assassination, “a festering wound that won’t heal because you can never get to the truth; how one event, the murder of Duncan, can bring eternal darkness to a nation.”

“I did a version of it six years ago at Stratford (Ontario),” McAnuff said, “and the imagery has haunted me since. The play is bottomless. I’m very interested in the whole notion of the childless couple where the husband’s career becomes the child. Being 36 now and not having a child, I relate to that.”

Will Mandell Weiss get to play in the Mandell Weiss? The 97-year-old chief donor and patron saint of the Mandell Weiss Center for the Performing Arts has been honored with a play commissioned about his life by the UC San Diego drama department. The playwright, Oana-Maria Hoch, who received her master’s in fine arts from UCSD in 1988, became friends with Weiss when he complimented her on her play “Berlin, Berlin” at the Mandell Weiss Center for the Performing Arts in 1987. They discovered they had a birthplace in common--Romania--and Hoch wrote a short play for Weiss (the prelude to this one), which was read last year at his April 22 birthday bash. The working title is “Love in the Shape of a Tuba,” which Hoch described as a “symbol” that has nothing to do with the shape of Weiss or his playing the tuba--which he doesn’t. The play is scheduled to be completed this fall, although dates and sites for a production have not been set.

At the same time, Hoch, who still lives in San Diego, recently received a commission from the La Jolla Playhouse--which also makes its home in the Mandell Weiss--to script “The Man Who Had No Story.” That’s a children’s musical about a man who’s rootless in a new land. He’s helped by the inhabitants, who hail from Africa, Russia, Mexico and Cambodia and, who share their stories with him. The show, the second of the La Jolla Playhouse POP (Performance Outreach Program) productions in two years, will tour local schools May 1-June 9. “The Man Who Had No Story,” subtitled “A Tale of Many Cultures,” features music by Michael Roth, resident composer of the playhouse, who designed the music for “A Walk in the Woods.” The production follows in the footsteps of “Silent Edward,” the original musical by Des McAnuff, artistic director of the playhouse, which played to more than 30,000 young people last year.

Edward Albee, who viewed local talent at work on his plays March 2 at Roosevelt Junior High School, was evidently impressed with the work of local actors Ralph Elias, Bonnie Dillingham, Andrew Barnicle and Jim Johnston and director Ann Lyon in Albee’s adaptation of Carson McCullers’ “The Ballad of the Sad Cafe.” Elias said Albee told the audience of more than 70 that often when he hears productions of his plays, they appall him, but this time he was left wanting to see the whole thing. Will Elias, artistic director of the Bowery Theatre, consider squeezing “The Ballad of the Sad Cafe” on his upcoming schedule, which is scheduled to be announced in April?

“It’s possible,” he said, hedging gracefully.

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