It may surprise some audience members to realize that Alan Cumming's solo Macbeth, currently running at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, isn't actually a solo show. Cumming is joined onstage by Jenny Sterlin and Brendan Titley, two actors who are this season's definition of "There are no small parts." Set in the psychiatric ward of a mental institution, Sterlin and Titley play Doctor and Orderly tending to Cumming's character, a deranged man who begins to ritualistically reenact Shakespeare's supernatural tragedy of ambition, taking on almost every role and slowly revealing details about the tormented psyche of a man with multiple personalities. In the midst of previews, TheaterMania talked with Sterlin and Titley about their work in the production, and how two almost entirely silent characters could have such great an impact.
How did you become a part of this production and how was it described to you?
Brendan Titley: I just auditioned.
Jenny Sterlin: This is the fifth time I worked with Alan, so he just asked me to do it and I'm very grateful. I knew we had some words, but I think we were both feeling a bit on the outside at the beginning of it.
BT: They were like "Go here, go here, go here…"
JS: Now what I do feels like such an integral part. If it wasn't three people, it would be a very different show.
BT: When I got this part, I started reading some reviews, and one of them was like, "It opens with Alan getting processed by two actors dressed as nurses," and I was like, "Ohhh, that's awkward; what a horrible thing to say. I hope that's not what it is." So that's the fear: Who are these two people? Why are they there?
So, who are these two people and why are they here?
JS: I see myself as a psychologist, could be a psychiatrist, but definitely psychoanalytically based. She's married, but she develops a relationship with this patient in the sense that he fascinates her. When it's discovered that he's obviously a serial killer or has killed quite a few and done horrible things, she has a different reaction than the orderly. To me, being the psychoanalytic person, you can't be shocked by anything. So I still have empathy for this raging and demented human being.
BT: Mine's a little more emotionally fluctuating. My guy gets invested in the beginning because of what I assume is his situation, that he's the victim, and I think as I learn more, I pretty easily flip to the other side. I decided that he sees more things in black and white, because that would make the change easier for me.
There is a turning point, then.
JS: There is. It's when we see him washing a [child's] sweater [Ed. Note: this is a crucial plot point] and realize what he's done, and then we hear what he's done. Then we realize that he's not just the victim and we take our own course of action or attitude towards it.
BT: Not that those are the important changes that the audience needs to see.
JS: They see them. Last night, [my friends] said "We saw that." That's kind of cool.
Does it change from day to day?
BT: It has been changing, but only because we keep talking to the director and because we have this preview time, we get to try different things ever y night. I try to not change a lot, since I don't want to do anything that's going to [get in Alan's way]. I make things as much as we rehearsed as possible for Alan's sake, so we don't trip him up.
JS: But every show is different. The audience is different. We're always rediscovering. We've had different audience reactions. It's extraordinary the reaction at the end. We had one person…Alan [says] "To heaven or to hell," goes off to come back on as Lady Macbeth, and somebody obviously thought it was the end of the act, and they clapped, so everybody clapped. It was just extraordinary.
BT: At the first sound and light cue, when the lights first come up, we had a girl just go "AHHHH!" A big scream at lights-up. Thought it was scary as hell.
What are your favorite parts to watch?
BT: Just after the murder, during the blackout, because I really like the way the video is set up. It's pitch black and you have to watch the video. All the lines end in the middle of the verse, and then the next character picks it up, so it's very quick — but that kind of stuff really fits the mania of multiple personalities. It's the quickest [when] he goes from Macbeth to Lady Macbeth, and because it's in this really gnarly black-and-white video, it's really disturbing. It's really powerful and creepy.
JS: I'm still discovering. Every entrance we have is exciting for me.
Towards the end of the play, you both start talking to him — in Shakespearean words. Is that in his mind?
BT: I assume that.
JS: He's now put us into the play with him, which is why we speak Shakespearean words rather than [the] ordinary doctorese [in which we speak] at the beginning.
BT: That's how it was explained to us. So it's as if you are having any other conversation about this patient, but what he hears are Shakespeare lines. But then it gets strange, because I come into the playing space and deliver that line as the messenger, so I just assume that's like —
JS: That's also what he hears.
Did you do much research into the medical profession?
JS: I have some knowledge, because I was an auxiliary nurse at one point. I worked once when I was very young in St. Crispin's Lunatic Asylum in England, and it was an extraordinary experience. Most of the patients were all high on Thorazine, but there were [in] locked wards we had to go into.
How does that affect your performance?
JS: I have great empathy for this person, and an interest in how one's psyche can be so deluded. I imagine this person was an ordinary guy, he comes in in a suit, and he just, his mind has unraveled. Every night I discover more feeling and understanding about this person, and that's why it's interesting to do. I realize it's not such a small role, but there's so much more to it.
BT: This play has always been psychological, but it can get lost in the fighting and the battles and the witchcraft. This production is open to the whole psychological drama that you never get to see.
JS: The psychology of it has been ignored in so many productions I've seen. But why does Macbeth change? If you ignore that, that doesn't make it interesting. It becomes about battles and soldiers. It's the male/female, the two sides, everybody has that in them.
BT: When you let yourself take a small step down the wrong road, and how that snowballs and gets out of control.
JS: And how easy it is. I played a prostitute once in a play, and I did some research, I interviewed a prostitute, and I said "How do you do it?" and she says "once you do the first one, you can do 100." It's that crossing over. Once you've killed, you've killed and you can do it again.
Is there a definite answer about the person Alan's character was when he comes into the asylum? I came up with my own version: Once he pulled the child's sweater out of the evidence bag, I decided that he killed his entire family.
JS: Could be.
BT: There's no right answer.
JS: He obviously has killed something, and it's obviously so heart-wrenching to him, and I just immediately think, because you've had so many lately, voices of God have told you to do this, quasi religious stuff that goes on, and now it's all fuzzing around and contradicting itself inside his mind. And he just latches onto Macbeth. Is he a teacher?
BT: Or is he an actor?
This is a guy who is actively reciting the text of The Scottish Play, with not only impeccable accuracy, but with judicious cuts. He knows this play. I presumed he was a teacher who snapped.
JS: That's all along the right lines with what we're going with.
I don't think I want to know. I like being able to think about it.
BT: You're supposed to draw your own conclusions. The point of the play is not to know the answers. You care about the journey and thinking about stuff afterwards.