Brand-new theater troupe — the Berkeley Shakespeare Company — starts off with plucky take on ‘Macbeth’

The new Berkeley theater company was formed by three actors who met while performing ‘Taming of the Shrew’ at Buena Vista Winery in Sonoma County.

The Weird Sisters (Casey Anderson, Emily Newsome, Sara Hannan) in the Berkeley Shakespeare Company’s production of Macbeth. Credit: Sara Leyva

Three young Bay Area actors have formed a new Shakespearean acting company to satisfy their passion for acting and personal growth. They say the steep learning curve has provided excitement, challenge and the opportunity to exercise their craft.

During the pandemic lockdown, co-founders Emily Newsome, Phillip Leyva and Jennifer Gallagher (a Berkeley resident) decided to form the nonprofit Berkeley Shakespeare Company. The three had met while rehearsing for Avalon Players’ August 2021 production of Taming of the Shrew at Buena Vista Winery in Sonoma County. They wanted to create an “inclusive, equitable place for actors” — both for themselves and others — and to share their “love and passion for Shakespeare,” Gallagher said.

Macbeth

Finnish Hall, 1970 Chestnut St., 7:30 p.m., Dec. 10-12 and 17

They had long dreamed of doing Macbeth, the most produced of Shakespeare’s plays, Gallagher said. She said the tragedy enabled the company “to explore perennial themes that have relevance to the current moment,” like how Macbeth seeks “power for his ego, not for more benevolent reasons.”

And who doesn’t love the three weird witches, the exciting fight scenes, the violent murders, the doubt and the madness and the final somber resolution? And importantly, the “Scottish play” contains some of Shakespeare’s most expressive language and famous soliloquies. (Another plus for this slightly abbreviated version of Macbeth: It clocked in at just over two hours, including one brief intermission.)

It takes a lot of courage, confidence, hard work, and experience to put on a play — not to mention talent and money. With start-up funds from friends, family, and kind support from Berkeley’s local theater community, especially Patrick Dooley and the Shotgun Players, the troupe began by auditioning about 30 actors who answered their open audition calls. The actors are all non-union and work for the experience and fun of it; they are not paid.

In her directorial debut, San Francisco resident Emily Newsome seems to have a firm handle on the play’s inner workings and did a nice job at pulling this bare-boned production together. Without a traditional stage, set, curtain, lighting, sound enhancement or sophisticated costuming, one focuses entirely on the actors.

Some of the actors are very good, though others could benefit from more experience and from voice speed and modulation training. Jennifer Gallagher was polished as Lady Macbeth, and Lauren Dunagan was quite an effective Banquo. Members of the supporting cast, like Alejandra Wahl, succeeded in their several roles.

Lady Macbeth’s famous sleepwalking scene (“Out, damned spot! out, I say! …”) was performed well. Several of Macbeth’s (Phillip Leyva) soliloquies were a bit hurried and mumbled, as is perhaps a modern style. As Macduff, Sam Logan was convincingly shocked and sorrowed when he learns that his wife and children have been slaughtered: “All my pretty ones? /Did you say ‘all’? … What, all my pretty chickens and their dam/ At one fell swoop?”

As they looked for a venue for the production, the founders were happy with Finnish Hall on Chestnut Street in Berkeley; its central location is close to the Shotgun Players’ Berkeley rehearsal space, which they often used. With only 40 seats in the Finnish Hall, the audience is extremely close to the action. So, it’s good that not much fake blood is thrown about during the well-staged fight scenes — just enough to give the audience the idea of violent death. By the way, the Finnish Hall is not to be confused with the Old Finnish Hall on 10th Street. (Yes, Berkeley has two Finnish halls!)

The founders are already planning to mount spring and summer productions. “It would be fun to do modern productions, but based on Shakespeare stories or parodies,” Newsome said.

The hard work and love of theater this young company possesses is impressive. I wish them a bright future.

The Berkeley Shakespeare Company production of Macbeth is playing Dec. 10, 11, 12 and 17 in the upstairs meeting room of the Finnish Hall, 1970 Chestnut St., Berkeley. Tickets: $15 online, $20 at the door. See Eventbrite for more details.

Longtime East Bay resident Emily S. Mendel has been Berkeleyside’s freelance theater and art critic since 2012.