You could say that Angela Iannone has a thing for Edwin Booth: she’s steeped herself in the life and history of the great 19th century American actor; she’s written four plays about him and has started a fifth. And she has his signature tattooed on her wrist, “right over the vein that runs from the hand to the heart,” as she was quoted in a recent article by Mike Fischer. So when you watch her latest play, The Seeds of Banquo, currently getting its first production by Theatre Red, you will be sipping from that strong infusion. The play is a lot of things: a fascinating attempt to reconstruct a forgotten era of theater history, an intensive analysis of Shakespeare’s “Scottish Play,” and for most people, an introduction to a true American superstar. It has a pretty awful title—but at its core, it’s a deep dive into the process of acting Shakespeare, presented in a way that could only come from a playwright who is a brilliant, passionate performer herself.
In his day, Edwin Booth was Jonny Depp, Patrick Stewart and Steven Spielberg in one person: a phenomenal, sexy, star player who owned and operated the grandest, most successful theater in New York City: the Booth Theatre (we get hints of the scale of his success in the play, where he mentions making his entrance on horseback and hiring five stagehands just to handle the thunder effects). Tremendously rich and famous, the son of a great English thespian, he was renowned for the sensitivity and naturalness of his performance, at a time when Shakespeare and the Bible were the most-read literature in America. Oh, and his brother was John Wilkes Booth—a little historical fact that has somewhat overshadowed his reputation. Brother John is not even mentioned in this show—which is kind of odd, considering that they’re rehearsing Macbeth, which is all about the murder of a king (maybe Iannone covers this topic in one of her other Booth plays). This play focuses resolutely on acting, and has quite a bit to say about it.
“Acting is not lying!” Booth thunders to his minions, in one of the many rehearsal scenes that comprise the body of the show. “It’s revealing the truth.” In those days, stage acting was often a mixture of sonorous declamation and silent-film-style gesticulation. Booth was an innovator, thinking deeply about his character’s motivations and backstories, and how to most elegantly express them onstage. These scenes are metatheatrical exercises dramatizing how a performance is put together (incredibly, Iannone has studied Booth’s actual prompt books for his 1870 production of Macbeth, containing records of his staging ideas). Booth switches between bickering with his actors, urgently giving them blocking on the fly, and throwing himself into his character with such intensity they more than once have to stop and ask him if he’s alright to continue. One gets the strong sense that these deep forays into the rehearsal process are the show’s real reason for existing.
Can you portray a great actor without being one? In the role of Booth, UWM grad John Mundschau Glowacki begs that question by delivering a completely magnetic performance. Through some blessed combination of raw talent, training, Ms. Iannone’s expert direction, and possibly necromancy, we get a vivid, credible impression of a compelling artist who is difficult to get along with precisely because his feelings are so unfiltered as to be readily accessible. With his chiseled good looks, resonant voice, and an uncanny resemblance to Benedict Cumberbach, Glowacki is the real deal: he delivers his Shakespeare speeches with precise sensitivity to the resonance of each word, pausing slightly to let them hover in the air; you can see his eyes light up with each discovery of yet another layer of meaning—an experience anyone who has played Shakespeare will recognize, and something that would be impossible to capture in a full-length Shakespeare production. Mr. Glowacki will soon be leaving town to study acting at NYU: if looks, talent, charisma and a good school make for a star, a star will be birthing soon.
If Booth is the sun, he’s orbited by a strong set of supporting players. Evidently Iannone made them rehearse in 19th-century outfits, and it shows: we get a strong sense of a different time with different mores. As Booth’s second (and a bit of a frenemy), Cory Jefferson Hagen does the yeoman’s labor of shining dimly, demonstrating when he attempts one of Macbeth’s speeches just how lesser an actor his character is (of course he thinks he’s better—actors don’t change that much over the centuries). Sasha Katharine Sigel plays an ambitious young actress with charm and spunk, but her character is soon mesmerized by Booth’s magnetism. Marcee Doherty-Elst, as a seasoned actress hired to play Lady M, holds her own with great poise and dignity (that corset probably helps), and, as an actor from another company unaccountably brought in to assist in the rehearsal, Bryan Quinn brings welcome comic relief, playing every odd character from Lennox and Ross to all three witches, often in a thick Scottish burr, with some fabulously nerdy Shakespearean in-jokes.
Iannone gives us a framing plot about Booth’s wife on the verge of delivering a son, and a parallel with Macbeth in that his Banquo’s mistress is revealed to be pregnant (this must have something to do with the title, which still remains pretty opaque: who are the seeds of Banquo exactly? The answer probably lies in the pages of some obscure academic journal). It’s almost impossible to bring in so much material without contrivance, and the play does creak a bit. Also, if any show ever demanded program notes, this is it. In her total immersion, Iannone seems to have forgotten that not everyone has detailed knowledge of Macbeth and theater history at their fingertips. It would be nice to at least have had some ready information about the other plays in the series—like their titles, and what aspect of Booth’s life they cover (but aside from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?).
The Seeds of Banquo offers an insightful, heartfelt view of a great actor at work, reminiscent of the powerful play Master Class, or the Canadian television drama Slings and Arrows, that similarly peel back the mystique to show the hard work of mind, body and soul that goes into making theater. This show barely stands alone; it will not find a mass audience, nor do you get the impression it’s intended to. But for the elite few with the background knowledge to appreciate an intensive inside look at the theater process and art in general, it’s a hothouse orchid: an exquisite rarity, begotten of extraordinary devotion and nourished by the life-blood of human feelings that transcend time and place.
Theatre Red presents a world premiere
The Seeds of Banquo
written and directed by Angela Iannone
playing through Aug. 23
Keith Tamsett Theater, (Soulstice Theatre’s space)
3770 S. Pennsylvania Ave, St. Francis.
For tickets, go to theaterred.com