BusesAmong the records broken at the Two River Theater in its smash ‘Macbeth’ run: most students attending one of its plays.

Not in the legions
Of horrid hell can come a devil more damn’d
In evils to top Macbeth.

Well, yeah, as characters go, he is a bit of a homicidal beast. But as a stage production, Shakespeare’s bloodsoaked ‘Macbeth‘ has proven quite the charmer for the Two River Theater Company.

First, there’ve been the fannies in the seats. Final figures aren’t in yet, but theater officials confirm the show, which closes Sunday after an extended run, topped all prior ones in the company’s 14-year history.


Then there’s the unprecedented attention the show has drawn, mainly thanks to the integration of dazzling magic by Teller, of Penn & Teller fame. National Public Radio did a piece on the production. The Washington Post ran a feature hat was picked up by newspapers across the U.S. The Wall Street Journal called for the show to move on to New York, “which as you can imagine is a regional theater’s dream,” said company founder and executive producer Robert Rechnitz.

And finally, there’s the buzz among patrons and potential converts. Right up until the last, callers have been clamoring for tickets. We’ve even heard that some of the ‘Macbeth’ banners hung from streetlamps around the Red Bank theater got swiped as souvenirs.

It would seem, for this little regional company, that it can’t get much better. But ask managing director Guy Gsell how the TRTC will top itself, and he calmly draws a gradually rising line in the air.

“We’re just hitting our stride,” he says.

Much of the attention, to be sure, was due to the involvement of Teller, and the expectation that he would magically loose rivers of blood as one character after another is ‘unseamed’ by sword. He did, much to the horrified delight of audiences.


Entertainment seekers, apparently unsated by the likes of Tim Burton’s cinematic bloodrush “Sweeney Todd,” flocked to the TRTC. As of last week, the total number of theatergoers to pass under the TRTC’s undulating lobby roof was approaching 10,000.

This being Shakespeare, not to mention a stellar magic show, the production also had an organic appeal to students. Normally, for the five or six-week run of a show, TRTC might put on three school matinees; ‘Macbeth’ required 12. Some 4,200 high school and junior-high students have seen the show, as have another 800 from Monmouth University.

To theater officials, all those schoolbuses parked outside were proof that the company is doing what it’s supposed to be doing in terms of educational and cultural outreach to the young. And the general buzz feels good, too, they say.

“It is a very special time here,” says Gsell (pronounced ‘gazelle’). “We’ve gone from a small regional theater with a good, small, loyal audience to a bigger regional with a bigger regional audience and now a national reputation.”

The company has experienced a meteoric rise in recent years. After toiling away for some time at the Algonquin Theater in Manasquan, the TRTC had its big breakthrough in late 2005 with the Moss Hart comedy “You Can’t Take It With You,” the first show at its new $15 million, architecturally breathtaking home stage on Bridge Avenue.

Then came the late 2006 arrival of artistic director Aaron Posner. In his first year, just completed, theater officials say the quality of the actors auditioning for roles was markedly higher. That season also saw Steve Martin’s titillating adaptation of century-old German farce, ‘The Underpants,’ which played to full houses and rave reviews.

“Last season, we had both critical and commercial success,” says Gsell.

“We have turned a corner in our business,” Rechnitz told the Red Bank Zoning Board last week. He’d gone there seeking approval to turn a house on Shrewsbury Avenue into temporary living quarters for visiting actors — talent that is being drawn to the theater from a national base as the company’s prestige has increased, he said.

“We are rapidly becoming the pre-eminent regional theater in the state of New Jersey,” he said. And while the folks at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre might take issue — they’re now staging a world-premiere Edward Albee work, “Me, Myself and I,” starring a big name, Tyne Daly — Rechnitz was careful to add that, “McCarter might supercede us, but we are increasingly significant.”

Up next: Tennessee Williams’ hothouse drama ‘The Glass Menagerie,’ from March 25 to April 28. Rechnitz will direct. That will be followed in May by Mark Twain’s ‘A Murder, a Mystery & a Marriage.

All the attention and ticket sales are great, says Gsell, but he says artistic achievement far outranks moneymaking in priority, and that the company measures its success not show-by-show, but by complete season.

“We’re not trying to play one-upsmanship with ourselves,” he says. “What matters is that the show is an artistic success — that’s number one, without question.”

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