Sure, Kevin Spacey's Baltimore-filmed House of Cards seems loosely based on Shakespeare's Macbeth, but you don't need all of the blocked-off streets and film crews in order to experience the classic drama of political ambition and power-grabbing. In fact, there's something intensely powerful and personal about sitting in a small room only feet away from Macbeth as she howls, "Methought I heard a voice cry 'Sleep no more!/ Macbeth does murder sleep'-the innocent sleep."
No, that was not a typo: In this Annex Theater production, Macbeth is played by a woman, the spectacular Sophie Hinderberger (who is quickly becoming one of my favorite actors for her range and intensity). But director Evan Moritz wasn't trying to do a gender-bending approach to the Bard. "No one auditioned for a part," Hinderberger says in a break between scenes during a rehearsal a couple nights before the play's opening. "We all just auditioned for the play."
"I chose Sophie since she fit the part best," Moritz says. "She had a fantastic audition, and I've had the pleasure of acting with her several times, so I know how hard she works on a character." Moritz admits he was intrigued by the possibilities of a female Macbeth. Still, he adds, "As we worked on the show, we agreed not to play gender, but to find the pathway to the character through text, relationships with other characters, and scenic ideas."
As the crew works through the scene and Hinderberger excels at making the viewer forget that she is a woman playing Macbeth, there is another drama coming to an end, one more akin to Old Testament-like wandering than Shakespeare's "sound and fury/ Signifying nothing."
Back in October, when Annex Theater announced its 2012-2013 season, they were certain that they would be able to present all of the plays at the Chicken Box at 1 W. North Ave., which is also the new offices for Station North Arts and Entertainment, Inc. Then, with each new production, the company would send out an email, often postponing the show or announcing a new location.
Which wasn't surprising. Moritz says that when he first saw the space, it was bisected by a large piece of bulletproof glass. And when I toured the site with Ben Stone, director of Station North Arts and Entertainment, back in January, it was clear that there was still a lot of work to do-laborers were still hauling out the fans and other kitchen equipment left over from the long-vacant building's days as a fried-chicken joint-as well as an effort to maintain as much of character of the building as possible, especially the beautifully tiled ceiling.
As we walked around the building and Stone talked to the contractors, he told me about the shift that led Station North to feel like they couldn't be on the eighth floor of the Walbert Building anymore. "Station North was an organization focused on what was happening on North Avenue," Stone said. "When Joe Squared opened, nobody believed there was a pizza place on North Avenue, and so my predecessor spent a lot of time saying, 'Yes, there is this thing happening.' Now Joe was voted best pizza in the state of Maryland, and Windup wins all kinds of awards and accolades. Most of the venues are now doing well on their own, so we've tried to start filling in the gaps to manage the change that is coming. We want to be in a position to welcome people to the neighborhood. I hear stories all the time about people who come to town from as far away as New York or D.C. because they read a story or something [about Station North], and then they arrive and don't exactly know what to do. If you got off at Penn Station at 3 p.m. on a Friday afternoon and walked up here, you would say, 'Am I in the right area?' So we want to be more of a first stop, visitor center, at least during the week."
At night and on weekends (and weekend nights) the location will house performances by Annex Theater, which started out in the Annex Building in Station North, rehearsed out of the H&H Building for a while, performed at the Autograph, D Center, and back at the H&H. The company was looking to come back to Station North, and Doreen Bolger, director of the Baltimore Museum of Art, put them in touch with Stone.
"We wanted this space to bring more people and activity to this corner, but an office with two people in it isn't really going to do that like a theater company will," said Stone.
Of course, the small, narrow building isn't an obvious theatrical venue, with its very limited space for spectator seating. But it doesn't seem to bother Annex, for whom theater is about collaborating and building community as much as it is about art.
"We wanted a place where the stage wasn't right outside our bedrooms [like the Annex], and there are all of these theaters, like the Parkway," Moritz says. "But it has 400 seats, and we thought it loses the charm and intimacy that we have now."
So as spring begins to feel like summer, the windows are covered with black curtains, upon which Wham City's Ben O'Brien projects images of smoke and ghosts and flame, and Horse Lords' Andrew Bernstein's electronic squall fills the space, sonically mirroring the deterioration of Macbeth's mind, it feels like a theater, but more so; the tight space envelops all the senses. And there is something uncanny-not quite a spooky as Banquo's ghost perhaps-about the smell of fried chicken and general greasiness creeping through the building. Then I notice one of the cast members eating out of a McDonald's bag: It is not the ghost of all the chickens slaughtered. The Chicken Box has been transformed, and Annex has a home.
Watching Hinderberger and Sarah Jacklin find their way into to Shakespeare's Elizabethan phrasing not as a postmodern gimmick or high-falutin reimagining, but rather to understand, to live in some sense the motivations of the characters, you feel something that it is hard to get anywhere else: an immediacy, an honesty that can't be faked, and an intensity of purpose and passion. Hinderberger and Jacklin play beautifully off of each other as they veer from crime to guilt. Jacklin brings just the right combination of fierceness, charm, and destitution to Lady Macbeth, and like Hinderberger seeing Banquo's ghost (which is quite cleverly performed), she gets better the more unhinged she becomes.
The three witches, too, bring life back to roles that are all too easily played as hoary cliche. Jacob Budenzas brings great energy and verve to his role as a male sister, and Gina Denton as Hecate and King Duncan is fierce.
As the rehearsal wraps up, Moritz climbs down from his slightly elevated perch, where he has been sitting behind a laptop, taking notes with a focused intensity. "Let's talk blood," he says. A woman approaches me and says that some of the cast are nervous that I am going to hear them get yelled at, and so I get up to leave. There are still some flaws in the production at this point, but they still have two days until opening. And, most importantly, the scrappiness and the intimacy of the location and the troupe come together to hit at the essential thing about theater. For all their comfort and glory, it is hard to imagine one of the bigger theaters, like Center Stage or Everyman, bringing this much heart to a production of Macbeth. As I walk out the door onto North Avenue, it is clear that this tale of treacherous murder marks an auspicious beginning for the Chicken Box and a new stage for Station North.