Marking the beginning of its 50th season, Shakespeare ’70, the theater company with long roots at the College of New Jersey, will present the Bard’s dark 1606 work, “Macbeth,” with Princeton resident Sarah Stryker and Danny Gleason of Yardley, Pennsylvania, in the starring roles.
Directed by the company’s founder, president, and artistic director John F. (Frank) Erath, PhD., “Macbeth” runs Friday, June 21, through Sunday, June 30, at the Kelsey Theater at Mercer County Community College. In fact, it has become an annual tradition for Shakespeare ’70 to perform one of its namesake’s works at Kelsey this time of year.
Now, if you’re groaning to yourself, “ugh, who wants to think about Shakespeare or English lit in general this time of year, so boring,” think again.
Actor/director/producer Janet Quartarone, assistant director for the production, says come take a chance with “Macbeth,” and you won’t be bored. It might even remind you of “Game of Thrones,” the series that recently wrapped up its run on HBO.
“For Shakespeare ’70 part of our mission statement has always been, ‘share the excitement of the theater with the people,’” says Quartarone, who is also on the company’s executive committee. “When it comes to Shakespeare we want people to realize how relevant and how exciting his work can be, not boring or slow at all.”
The company has set “Macbeth” in medieval times, around 1040 AD, which Quartarone says is both a traditional and unusual approach. So don’t look for kilts and tartans.
“This will be very rough looking, with costumes of fur and leather and rags, which hearkens to an early and dark time in history,” Quartarone says. “If it was done to reflect a later time then you’d have people in kilts and whatnot.”
A dramatization of a particularly violent episode in Scottish history, “Macbeth” is considered one of Shakespeare’s most topical plays for a number of reasons. The work is associated with the reigning monarch of the time, James I, who was also the patron of Shakespeare’s company, the King’s Men.
The central themes in the play revolve around the threat of treason, the psychological and social impact of a king’s murder, the instability of power, and the diabolical potential of the supernatural.
James I was deeply fearful of witchcraft and even wrote a book on the subject. He was fixated on persecuting witches — mostly women, and probably mostly innocent. Those who were caught practicing the craft underwent violent “trials” and punishment during James’ time.
“Shakespeare wrote it at the behest of James I, who was enamored of punishing people for practicing witchcraft,” Quartarone says. “He’s writing about an ancestor of James I but saying a lot more. There are many sad things and history that drive the story, but it’s more than a history lesson. It’s about tyrannical leaders who lose sight of why they’re there.”
The Bard explores the supernatural at length in “Macbeth,” which prominently features the fabled “Three Witches,” sisters who gather around the cauldron and proclaim, “Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.”
The roles of the “Weird Sisters” and their incantations are said to be part of the spooky superstitions about the play.
“You’re not supposed to name the play or the character or quote it out of context unless you’re in rehearsal,” Quartarone says.
Centuries of theater lore claim that if an actor speaks the name “Macbeth” in a theater prior to one of the performances, they are required to perform a ritual to remove the curse. One ritual asks the individual to leave the theater building, or at least the room occupied when the name was mentioned, spin around three times, spit, curse, and then knock to be allowed back in.
“The play does have a very bloody, unfortunate history of productions, including riots breaking out after one show in New York City,” Quartarone says, alluding to an 1849 performance where some 30 people died due to the frenzy.
Some quick research supports the play’s reputation. Laurence Olivier and Charlton Heston barely escaped calamity during their performances. And a 1942 production starring John Gielgud holds the record for most misfortune. Three actors died during its run, and the costume designer killed himself right after the premiere.
“I don’t tend to be superstitious, but when I did the play myself (as Lady Macbeth), my ‘Scot’ and I fell off the stage, and it’s a wonder we didn’t get hurt,” she adds. “I’ve seen unfortunate things happen, so I won’t tempt the theater gods.”
Instead, she uses the “The Scottish Play” when speaking of the work.
Shakespeare ’70 was founded during the 1969-’70 academic year at what was then Trenton State College, now TCNJ. Erath, professor emeritus in the English department at TCNJ, paired with a friend, Gerry Guarnieri, to start the company. Frank Erath’s wife, Gail, worked on costuming for the fledging troupe from the beginning.
Quartarone says Erath was chairman of the English department at the time, and had a vision to take Shakespeare’s plays out of the classroom and share the brilliance of these works with others in the campus community.
“The (troupe’s) beginnings were on the college campus, and early performers were other professors or Frank’s students,” she says. “Over the years we’ve performed at many other venues, but we always maintain close ties to TCNJ. Plus, myself and many of the younger performers are graduates of TCNJ.”
Erath is in his 80s now and lives in Maine but returns to central New Jersey to direct each year. As for Gail Erath, Quartarone says, “she’s not on our production team for this show, but she’ll be coming down to join is for the opening night of this, our 50th summer Shakespeare.”
Another one of Shakespeare ’70’s longtime performance spaces was the outdoor stage at Washington Crossing, but the company happily came in from “under the stars” more than a decade ago, when the Kelsey’s manager and artistic director, M. Kitty Getlik, suggested the space at MCCC.
“I’ll say one thing about outdoor summer theater: when it’s good, it’s very good, and when it’s bad, it’s buggy,” Quartarone says, musing on hot costumes, wigs, bug-inviting makeup, and hairspray. “Kitty invited us inside, and now we’re the last show in their regular season.”
A Flemington resident, Quartarone grew up in the Berkeley Heights area, where her father worked as a factory and power plant piping designer. Her mother, a former Manhattan secretary, stayed home to raise the children. Then, her daughter says, she “sought part-time work with children and became a school crossing guard for many years.”
Quatarone says she has always been interested in theater, but “I got really serious when I pursued theater at Governor Livingston High School, then I did theater throughout college,” she says. “I also studied education of the deaf and hearing impaired, which was something practical, but also fascinating.”
Quartarone earned a B.S. (1982) from TCNJ with this major, along with a concentration in theater, then studied with Uta Hagen’s protege, Carol Rosenfeld, at HB Studio in New York.
Throughout a long career, Quartarone has been involved with Passage Theater in Trenton, as well as Actors’ Net of Bucks County, the Summit Playhouse, Westwind Repertory, and Chimera productions, to name a few companies.
Some of her outstanding roles include Ariel in “The Tempest,” Jean Brodie in “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” Kristine in “A Doll’s House,” and (as she mentioned) Lady Macbeth. She also has a long resume as a director/assistant director.
Quartarone made her first appearance with Shakespeare ’70 in its production of “A Woman of No Importance” in the Don Evans Black Box at the College of New Jersey.
In addition, she is corporate vice president and director of marketing for Martinsville-based Simulations Inc., producers of educational and training programs for the pharmaceutical, biotech, and medical device industries.
Quartarone says as a young person she had opportunities to get involved with theater companies that toured on a national level, but she decided to explore within the tri-state region instead.
“It’s a tremendous commitment when you’re traveling for many months, but for any young person just starting out in theater, I’d encourage them to go for it,” she says.
Quartarone’s husband is Dale Simon, an actor-director-technical designer who oversees theater facilities at TCNJ’s Kendall Hall. He is also the technical director for this season’s production of “Macbeth.”
“There are two performance spaces, one is the main stage, and one is the black box — he’s involved with anything that’s happening in that building,” she says. “In fact, that’s where we met many years ago.”
With several decades of time invested in Shakespeare ’70, Quartarone reflects that many of their actors return for different productions, and many friendships have been forged. One season there was even a marriage proposal during a run of “The Tempest.”
“You always want the company to grow and never get stale, but it’s nice to know that this is a true repertory company, an extended family,” she says. “Frank takes pride in this: he’s kind of the grandfather to us all.”
The company continues to move forward and invites all students — not just theater or English majors — to participate. Quartarone says last fall’s production of Bruce Norris’ “Clybourne Park” spread a wide net when casting, with the intent to interest students in other departments.
She notes that the production dealt with numerous contemporary topics, such as African-American history and women’s studies, and a variety of students were involved, with lots of post-show talk backs.
“The purpose was to make the theater experience resonate for lots of folks,” Quartarone says.
“We want people to come to the theater and understand why it’s for everyone,” she says. “Even though our company’s name is ‘Shakespeare ’70,’ we embrace both classical and contemporary works, all kinds of things that will stand the test of time. These plays live because they’re about real human beings, with both good and bad characteristics; the human dynamics are real and recognizable.”
As for Shakespeare ’70’s 50th anniversary, Quartarone says, “It’s a time of great excitement when any long-lived company has a moment like this. It’s an evolution.”
Macbeth, Kelsey Theater, Mercer County Community College, 1200 Old Trenton Road, West Windsor. Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m. and Sundays, 2 p.m., June 21 through 30. $14 to $18. A reception follows the opening night performance. 609-570-3333 or www.kelseyatmccc.org
Shakespeare ’70 on the web: www.shakespeare70.org.