Telluride is a musical town, especially in summer, with not one but four festivals devoted to bluegrass, rock, jazz and blues on the calendar.
This weekend, though, music is matched with murder and mayhem. You’ll find them all onstage (along with brilliant acting) as Telluride Theatre presents its annual Shakespeare in the Park performance, beginning Saturday night. The company’s 31st annual production is of “Macbeth,” one of Shakespeare’s great tragedies, a theatrical institution so fearsome and intimidating it prevented the play’s director, Colin Sullivan, from taking it on for half a decade.
“I’ve had ‘Macbeth’ on the short list for five years running,” Sullivan has said. “I now know my hesitation to put it up was because I was scared of it: scared of the curse” — actors famously refrain from saying the title of this play when in the theater, referring to it euphemistically as “The Scottish Play” — “scared that the play was not what it seemed, scared that I would have to find a way to conjure real magic to make it whole, scared that it would demand more from me than anything we had done before.”
Sullivan was correct: The production has been demanding, and more than that, he had to conjure real theatrical magic to make it happen.
He did this via shrewd casting, starting with the crucial lead performances: New York City actor Ian Lassiter, who has acted on Broadway in “King Lear,” “War Horse” and “The Cherry Orchard,” stars as Macbeth, and Cat Lee Covert — a veteran of numerous Telluride Theatre performances — portrays Lady Macbeth, who incites her husband to murder so that he may inherit the throne.
There’s your theatrical magic, right there (a terrific cast will make a play take flight). “Macbeth” also supplies its own theatrical magic, in the form of a trio of witches who prophesize that Macbeth will be king.
But there’s another kind of magic in this production: it’s the spark of creativity, forged in Sullivan’s partnership with award-winning Americana singer-songwriter Emily Scott Robinson, who lives in Telluride, and composed five original songs for this performance.
“Music is true magic that we can see and hear, just like storytelling,” Sullivan has said.
The singer — one of Rolling Stone magazine’s top 25 Americana songwriters of 2019 — had contributed several of her own compositions to last summer’s production of “As You Like It.” Yet she’d never written specifically for the theater (much less Shakespeare).
“As Colin and I were brainstorming, we realized the witches were the perfect vessel to convey music,” she said. “They’re already magical beings; they’re already ‘incanting.’ They speak in rhyme and verse with each other.
“The songs are not exclusively based on Shakespeare,” she went on. “It’s not like we took the text and put it to music. What I did was spend a lot of time with the text, and I used the text as a jumping off point for the songs. Several can stand alone; probably the one most ‘on the nose’ when it comes to this play is ‘The Prophesy Song.’ The music was very witchy and kind of eerie, but so fun to write. One of the central questions in ‘Macbeth’ is, does he, in effect, fulfill his own prophecy? Do the witches lure him into his own trap of ego and power?”
Is this a drama about fate, or a human flaw?
“The most important thing to remember” when attacking this role, Lassiter has said suggestively, “is something the director and I latched on to: Things don’t start to fall apart until they fall apart, and the tragedy is that the harder (Macbeth) tries” to hold it together, “the worse everything gets.”
A generous donation to Telluride Theatre has enabled the company to offer free tickets to San Miguel County students and teachers.
“We think Shakespeare is best learned on stage, live,” said the company’s artistic director Sasha Sullivan. “Reading Shakespeare is very hard to do, unless you’re a scholar. Hearing the language spoken by people who know how to say it is a different experience, and these plays are so important for students and teachers to know, we thought this was something we could give back to the community. At our recent gala, we asked for donations for this. We’re lucky to have received them.”
‘Macbeth’ opens this Saturday in Telluride Town Park at 8 p.m., and runs nightly, except for Wednesday, through the following Sunday. Performances are rain-or-shine (the audience is seated on-stage alongside the players). To purchase tickets, visit telluridetheatre.org.