On one of the last nights before actor, playwright and director Kyle Hatley moved back to Chicago, he stood on the roof of the Living Room Theatre and made himself a promise.
He and his actor friends Sean Hogge and Natalie Liccardello had been kicking around an adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” for years, never doing more than discussing the potential for a stripped-down reinvention. He knew he wanted them to be part of the creative team, but with an upcoming long-distance friendship, a deadline was approaching.
So he told himself that, one way or another, they would bring this show to life.
Now, after 13 months of over-the-phone crafting, in-person rehearsing, a fall workshop and an adjustment in production dates, “The Tragedy of Macbeth” will finally see the light of day Aug. 9 through Sept. 3 at the theater where it all began.
“There are a lot of reasons to come home, but I felt like if I was going to take a big, innovative risk — especially if I’m going to try to direct myself for the first time in an adaptation I’m working on — it feels like I need to come home and do that,” Hatley said.
Hatley, a Memphis native, had moved to Kansas City from Chicago in 2008 and served as associate artistic director of the Kansas City Repertory Theatre, where he directed and starred in numerous productions, and became a board member and frequent collaborator at the Living Room. In 2014, he decided to relocate to Chicago but kept strong ties to KC theater.
Hatley’s “Tragedy of Macbeth” both is and is not a retelling of Shakespeare’s classic about ambition, guilt and the Scottish throne. It’s a sort of play-within-a-play; three players act out a behind-the-scenes look at a production of “Macbeth,” using only Shakespeare’s language but rearranged in a way that informs both the plot of “Macbeth” and the growing tensions among the three players.
Hatley and Liccardello play the performers who play Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, as well as other selected characters; Hogge acts as stage manager in a sense, introducing lighting cues, special effects and live scoring at the same time.
Hatley said the focus for the show came from his part in “An Iliad” at the Rep in 2015. The one-man production of Homer’s epic gave Hatley the confidence to trim down Shakespeare’s five-act tragedy to 90 minutes with just three actors.
“The simpler it got, the more exciting it was to hear,” Hatley said.
With Hatley in Chicago, the three-person team would meet for a rehearsal every two to three months, with a more intensive series of rehearsals at the end of July. (The play was originally scheduled to run in June and July until Hatley was offered a two-show contract in Chicago. The Living Room producers pushed the show back to an August opening.)
The collaboration was instrumental to creating the best piece possible, Hatley said.
“You put the three of us in a room and we’re going to light up off each other and riff off of each other and keep each other honest, as well,” he said.
Cutting a five-act classic into one act was painful at first — but in the best interest of the play. You won’t see a Hecate or Donalbain in this version of “Macbeth” or even hear “double, double, toil and trouble.”
“There’s a lot of ‘killing your darlings,’ ” Liccardello said. “It’s kind of fun to dethrone the really iconic moments. There are speeches that are famous that people will miss, but it’s been fun to not make that the focus of our play.”
“It’s a good lesson in, yes, those speeches are iconic, but how much of the story needs those speeches?” Hogge said. “Maybe the story does — I don’t think we’re saying it doesn’t — but it’s just, ‘Here’s a version of it.’ ”
Audiences can also expect bare staging and costuming and intimate proximity to the actors in the Living Room. While the three haven’t “modernized” the play in the way some may expect (“We’re not changing the language or giving people guns instead of swords,” said Hogge), they agreed the modernization comes from emphasizing the spirit of the piece and its uncanny relevance today. Hatley said the 2016 election was another motivation for performing the play as soon as possible, but they’re not trying to make a political statement.
“It’s not just a political piece; it’s also a personal journey,” Hogge said. “It’s an examination of what it means to have power — not necessarily just political power but power over other people and the power to affect people. And we all have that power to effect change.”
“While it’s not ‘Macbeth,’ it allows some of the language that we feel needs to be heard to be heard, and it’s so shockingly prescient,” Hatley added. “There’s so much that can be said that points at some of the struggles with how we fit into our world and understand our world.”
“The Tragedy of Macbeth” runs Aug. 9 through Sept. 3 (opening night Aug. 11) at the Living Room Theatre, 1818 McGee St. Call 816-533-5857 or see thelivingroomkc.com.