I spent an interesting 90 minutes the other evening watching an amusing independent film called Never Say Macbeth. The comedy is described by its producers as a cross between Waiting for Guffman and Beetlejuice — that is, it’s about goofy theater and even goofier supernatural phenomena. If you’ve watched the inspired Canadian miniseries Slings and Arrows, about the backstage antics of a classic theater company, you might recognize a kindred spirit there, too. The romantic comedy is inspired by the theater superstition that uttering the name of Shakespeare’s “Scottish play” (that’s an acceptable reference) brings all kinds of dire results.
Macbeth is considered unlucky because it’s full of witchcraft. If an actor mentions the show’s title in a theater, there is a ritual about spinning around three times, spitting over your shoulder and uttering a line from Hamlet (“Angels and ministers of grace, defend us”) to prevent bad things from happening. Those who have ignored the curse, so it goes, have regretted it — if they’ve lived long enough. There’s a litany of performers dating back to the play’s original production in 1606 who have suffered illness, injury and even death.
Never Say Macbeth is the story of Danny, a hapless science teacher who pursues his actress girlfriend from Ohio to Los Angeles, where she is cast as Lady Macbeth in a production with a lot of eccentric personalities. He stays close by being cast as one of the three witches, despite having no theatrical experience. Then strange things begin to happen: It turns out that a tragic fire years earlier at the theater caused the deaths of several actors, and suddenly their ghosts begin to appear to some of the contemporary cast. The three witches appear, of course, and the drunken porter possesses an actress with funny results. Two other shows in rep at the time of the fire — The Importance of Being Earnest and The Pirates of Penzance — contribute a few more ghosts to the lunacy. I won’t say more than that, because it would spoil the fun.
Never Say Macbeth is being released on DVD by Vanguard Cinema this week. Coincidentally it’s vying with a bigger commercial release by Focus Features of a comedy with Shakespearean roots, Hamlet 2, that has an A-list cast including Catherine Keener, Amy Poehler, Elizabeth Shue, David Arquette and Steve Coogan. Never Say Macbeth’s performers are from several West Coast theater companies, including Pacific Resident Theatre, Sacred Fools, Classical Theatre Lab, The Blank Theatre and Circle X. Hamlet 2 had a $9 million budget; Never Say Macbeth was made for less than $90,000.
The comedy is generally entertaining, and the special effects are impressive for such a low budget. The plot has enough twists to keep you engaged, and there are some surprising moments and satisfying acting performances that make it fun to watch.
The film’s co-producers Joe Tyler Gold and Tammy Caplan are using an enterprising, grass-roots approach to market their film, hoping to spur sales of the DVD. They encourage viewing parties — something that might be fun for theater folks to do. It’s unlikely that this film will catch on with the wider public, but anybody who’s spent time onstage is likely to enjoy the hard-working satire. You can find out more by going to Never Say Macbeth.
There’s also a local connection to Never Say Macbeth. Co-producer Joe Tyler Gold — who also wrote the screenplay and plays Danny, the earnest, clueless science teacher — was an intern at Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati in 1994-1995. I traded some email with him and learned that he was in a production of Hamlet that was directed by Drew Fracher, still a force in Cincinnati theater as an actor and director. Gold played a small role and understudied the role of Bernardo. He writes, “This was the very first Equity production I ever acted in, and it was a very exciting play, with an extremely talented cast. Shakespeare productions like this were very influential in the writing of Never Say Macbeth.”
Gold was also in ETC’s production of Find Me a Voice by SuzAnne and Gabor Barabas, and the third Young Playwrights Festival in the fall of 1994. During his time in Cincinnati he also performed in a productions of Requiem for a Heavyweight at the Carnegie and worked on one of ETC’s early holiday “panto” shows, a comic version of Snow White.
Since his Cincinnati days, Gold has performed in other Shakespearean plays, written and produced a short comedic film (Fartman: Caught in a Tight Ass) and produced a short film called Petrol that was a finalist at the Almost Famous Film Festival.
— Rick Pender