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Roving outdoor version of Macbeth is ‘a revelation’

Something wicked this way comes: John Crosthwaite as Macbeth.

Something wicked this way comes: John Crosthwaite as Macbeth.

Photo by Carey Jean Photography

Macbeth, presented by Legacy Stage. Shows Thursday-Saturday, 7:30 p.m., through Nov. 2.
Tickets: $25 (limited to 25 people per show)
Cedar Grove
Bidwell Park

All the world’s a stage, indeed. It certainly is for Chico’s newest theater troupe. Legacy Stage takes advantage of multiple natural sets throughout Lower Bidwell Park for its debut production, a mobile version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. And the opening-night performance last Thursday (Oct. 3) was nothing short of a revelation—one of the most gratifying theatrical experiences I’ve had in Chico.

It’s been more than a decade since Shakespeare in the Park was held in Lower Bidwell Park’s tree-lined Cedar Grove. And as the audience stood in that meadow in the dark during his introduction to the night’s experience, director Matthew Teague-Miller spoke fondly of what was once a crucial component of Chico’s arts identity, while also promising that this return to the park was going to be something completely different.

To start with, we were all holding flashlights on him has he spoke. The audience would continue to act as the night’s lighting technicians as it was up to us to illuminate the scenes with the tiny flashlights that Legacy handed out upon our arrival. Our cue for moving from one to the next was a hardy “Hut hut!” from the lead usher, who, over the course of the play, led us down 2 miles’ worth of trails—ranging from the winding paths of the World of Trees nature trail to the banks of Big Chico Creek on the other side of the paved South Park Drive. (There’s a note in the play’s promo that “all attendees must be able to stand and walk for two hours.” There is no intermission—so don’t hydrate too much beforehand.)

The genius of this kind of immersive theater is having the inherent drama of the natural world at one’s disposal, and Teague-Miller and company made some stunning choices for the various “sets.” It would spoil the fun of the experience to paint a picture of any scene here. Part of the thrill was having a new world come into focus once the 25 audience members (tickets are limited to keep the production manageable) were ushered into place. I will say that a certain bend in the creek provided a gorgeous natural amphitheater. I’ll also say that as Macbeth’s servant Seyton (played by Lief Bramer) quietly broke the news—“The queen, my lord … is dead,” the sound of a sudden breeze wooshing through the sycamore overhead to punctuate line was a sublime bit of unplanned sound design.

In addition to all the nature-made drama and the mind-boggling choreography of the endeavor (kudos to stage manager Angelina Calderon), the players brought a crucial energy to the far-flung proceedings.

The two lead performances were especially memorable. Chico State theater instructor Jami Witt was scary good as Lady Macbeth, sinking her teeth into the role with a jarring emotional commitment. And John Crosthwaite—a veteran stage and television actor who teaches theater in the Bay Area and rarely performs locally—was just as impressive in the title role. As soon as he started murdering his way to the top, Crosthwaite’s Macbeth started walking the madness tightrope, and the actor played it with convincing bipolarity—from subtle whimperings to raging at the stars.

His best moment, and quite possibly the most powerful scene of live theater I’ve ever witnessed, was the first scene of Act 4, where the wicked Macbeth returns to the three witches demanding further prophecies. The framing of the moment is perfect—thanks to a particular arrangement of several tall, skinny trunks in the World of Trees area—and Crosthwaite’s charging performance was startling and thrilling. Again, I don’t want to give it all away here—I’ll just say the experimental arboretum provides many appropriately dramatic environs for a play set in a dark and scary Scotland.