By TOM CHESEK
It’s not uncommon for a stage troupe to throw some local kids in with a cast of more seasoned professionals whenever the script calls for a couple of young performers.
The more hometown kids in the show, the logic goes, the more family members buy up whole blocks of tickets. Witness all those revivals of “Annie” and “The Sound of Music” teeming with cherubic little faces.
But when the script is Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” and the producers have promised a horror show in so many words, all that onstage make-believe can turn deadly serious.
In the Bard’s blood-soaked tragedy of murderous ambition, the character of Young Macduff is part of a bloodline whose very existence threatens the regal destiny of the increasingly unbalanced Macbeth. So the monarch sends a pair of assassins to do away with the entire Macduff household.
In the violent, effects-laden version now onstage at Two River Theater Co., the boy is viciously dispatched in plain view by a hulking thug, who then drags the kid offstage as the last embers of a too-short life fade from the child’s limp form.
Not exactly an assignment for just any after-school amateur.
And so, as they’ve done whenever the situation called for a young man of pre-teen age and grown-up chops, the folks at the Two River called on The Two Jakes.
Already a veteran of the Two River stage at the age of 11, Rumson native Jake Tavill has stepped into the biggest challenge of his career; working with a tag-team of nationally known directors (TRTC’s Aaron Posner and master of mischief Teller, the tight-lipped half of the Penn & Teller partnership) on a show that’s brought unprecedented attention to the Red Bank-based company.
As the ill-fated “Duffling,” the Forestdale Middle School student gets to die a gruesome death repeated throughout a grueling performance schedule, during which he platoons in the part with fellow 11-year-old Jake Cameron of West Long Branch.
Before deciding that he should be impaled on a sword, “they talked about breaking my neck,” Tavill tells redbankgreen with nonchalance.
This is actually the second time that the Jakes have shared a role in a Two River production; they took turns appearing as little Burt in the 2006 revival of Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons.” And for Tavill, it’s his third go-round in a local professional career that began with the company’s quirky presentation of “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” in 2005.
According to Two River spokesowman Jayme Powers, the Jakes so impressed their directors that the question of who got to appear onstage for opening night was a literal toss-up a decision rendered by the court of the catapulted coin. Jake Cameron won that one.
It was Jake Tavill who, working with associate artistic director Liz Green, suggested that the producers talk to Jack Newsome for the role of Fleance, son of Macbeth’s similarly ill-fated pal Banquo.
Himself an 11-year-old Rumsonite, Newsome was an experienced performer who had appeared at Two River in a childrens’ theater production of “The Velveteen Rabbit.”
But this is no kid’s play. Working with the likes of Teller, Posner, and professional fight choreographer Dale Girard, the junior members of the cast were expected to deliver and understand the 400 year old words of the Bard, not to mention participate in some tricky action.
“We have ‘fight calls’ before every performance just so we make sure nothing goes wrong” amid all the clamourous swordplay on stage, Tavill says.
“These kids are treated like professional actors,” says Green, who’s seen to it that Jake, Jake and Jack are responsible for learning their lines and making it to the playhouse on time. “There are no babysitters backstage.”
Posner, for his part, has observed that the young actors “have been thrown into the oddest world imaginable. They have been great, and seem to enjoy the twisted, evil playground we have created.”
Teller, who has been notably vocal in promoting Two River’s most ambitious undertaking yet, rated his co-director as “incredible with the kids” in his online diary dedicated to the backstory of this high-profile production.
“Kids love playing dying and dead… so they were exaggerating their death throes, screaming in silly ways, and flopping around onstage giggling,” the world-famous illusionist writes. “Aaron talked each of our Dufflings through the pain they were enacting… he made them understand the reality of the injury, what it would feel like, and how it would feel to see the world retreat as they died.”
“So when Cleo House, who murders the kid, says the line, ‘What, you egg! Small fry of treachery,’ and delivers the death blow, there was true horror in the room.”
It falls upon one of the Jakes Teller doesn’t specify which to deliver what must be the last word on the chilling murder of Young Macduff, and maybe on the whole bloody enterprise.
“When the scene was finished, one of the Jakes grinned fiendlishly and said to me, ‘Hey, thats some bedtime story’!”
“Macbeth” continues its twice-extended run through February 17, with tickets prices ranging from $32 (for Wednesday matinees) to $56 (for Saturday nights). Visit the Two River website for reservations, available dates and info on group discounts and specially enhanced performances.
(Photo courtesy of Judi Tavill)