In a nearly pitch-dark room, the banquet scene from Shakespeare's "Macbeth" is coming alive.
"Come, love and health to all ... ," intones the host as he crosses a stage covered with shimmering black sand and makes his way toward a bank of chairs that are suddenly -- and invisibly -- filled with feasting guests.
A ghost appears as the tormented Macbeth proposes a toast: "I drink to th' general joy o' th' whole table, / And to our dear friend Banquo, whom we miss."
It is a visceral scene, and Macbeth's anguish is palpable. Everyone is there: a French-speaking Lady Macbeth at her husband's side, Banquo's ghost and of course the reveling lords. But this is hardly Shakespearean business as usual.
There is, after all, only one actor bringing this entire tragedy to life.
Yes, one: Stephen Dillane. And one director: Travis Preston. Together, they have ensconced themselves in this black box theater on the CalArts campus, bent on forging a staging of Shakespeare's play that is singular in more than one sense of the word.
In "Macbeth (A Modern Ecstasy)," Dillane performs the whole play solo, accompanied by a trio of musicians led by jazz artist Vinny Golia. The production, which begins previews Tuesday, opens Dec. 1 at REDCAT.
It's a daunting venture, even for a seasoned stage artist such as Dillane, and one that raises the question: Why?
"I have felt quite stale recently, and I needed to jump into something which seemed like too much, just to see what would happen," explains the quietly intense actor. "I just haven't had the passion for the work that I used to have, and I wanted to give it one more shot to see if I could reawaken that."
The notion of a one-actor "Macbeth" first occurred to Preston years ago, when he was directing a production of the play in Denmark. "I realized how much text Macbeth had in the piece and how much the play seemed to emerge from his consciousness," he says. "It seemed that that kind of intensity and concentration could be realized very effectively by a single performer."
Yet even though they'd had it in mind for years, such an ambitious project is invariably more so once you're in the thick of it.
"I still have to be talked out of the trees every now and then, when I come in and say this just isn't going to happen, it's just impossible," Dillane admits. "I regularly think that it's just stupid."
The greater character
Even when you have one actor for each role, "Macbeth," with its 32-plus characters, is no walk in the park. Shakespeare's tale of the murderous rise and fall of an ambitious Scottish general and his famously scheming wife doesn't lend itself to the kind of contemporary updating favored in regional theater productions.
"One of the things that's really important to remember about the work is that it will resist conceptual reduction of almost any kind," says Preston, whose extensive work in the classical canon has included many radical reinterpretations of Shakespeare and Ibsen, in addition to opera. "It will accept your whole imagination and all of your impulses -- anything you care to throw at it, except trying to reduce it."
Instead of focusing on Macbeth as a warrior and politician, Preston and Dillane are homing in on less tangible aspects of the character's power. "What has emerged is the presence of Macbeth as a visionary, and that's irrespective of how we might relate to the horrific nature of some of the things that he does," Preston says. "One of the things that's astonishing is that despite the horrors that we can attribute to him, he seems profoundly close, not alien as some other figures in Shakespeare might appear."
Supernatural elements figure prominently in the play, embodied not only by the three Weird Sisters who prophesy Macbeth's rise but by larger forces driving the action. "There's a kind of vision quest that has been incited, maybe not necessarily initiated by Macbeth's own devices but somehow thrust upon him, and this trajectory takes him into areas of human experience that we cannot access ourselves," Preston says. "Shakespeare takes the character there in order to give us signs of something that we can suspect but not know."
Such challenges are particularly appealing to Preston, as was the prospect of working so closely with one performer. His last outing for the Center for New Theater at CalArts, of which he is artistic director, was a site-specific all-female "King Lear," seen in 2002 at the Brewery Arts Center and later at the Frictions Festival in Dijon, France. Other CNT productions have included Chen Shi-Zheng's "Peach Blossom Fan" and Richard Foreman's "Bad Behavior."
Preston had known Dillane for 20 years off and on when he first approached him about "Macbeth." Dillane is best known for his stage work in London and on Broadway, where he won a 2000 Tony Award for best actor for his performance in "The Real Thing." On film, he has played Horatio in Franco Zeffirelli's "Hamlet" and the role of Leonard Woolf in "The Hours."