MEDFORD — Medford Square is no thunderstruck heath.
“It’s really kind of a happening town now,” Paula Plum says. “There are restaurants opening up; there’s a new bookstore down the street. A bookstore says something.”
Plum shows up on foot for the interview at a coffee shop in the square. She has lived close by for more than a decade. Allyn Burrows arrives on his motorcycle a few minutes later. He moved his family to town a year ago.
Now these founding members of the Actors’ Shakespeare Project are bringing “Macbeth” to downtown Medford. Plum is directing Burrows in the title role of the tragedy at the Chevalier Theatre, with performances Wednesday through Nov. 4.
Actors’ Shakespeare Project is based in Somerville and performs there as well as in Boston and Cambridge. For the company, Medford is a new frontier. Burrows, who is also the company’s artistic director, says he moved to Medford in part because he got a feel for the community while scouting the Chevalier.
“Two years ago, I walked into the space and they were building the apron over the orchestra pit, and I said, ‘Hey, do you guys ever rent?’ ” Burrows says. “I get on my motorcycle every spring and I drive around looking for venues. It was on one of our old lists, and I said, let me go check that out. And I thought, this has possibilities.”
Last time the Actors’ Shakespeare Project performed the Bard’s tale of murderous ambition, in an all-female version at Boston University in 2007, Plum played Lady Macbeth, the role taken here by company member Mara Sidmore. Plum says she’s not bringing much from that experience to this production.
“I don’t want to assume there’s only one way to play Lady M,” Plum says. “Once you discover a part [as an actor] and then you direct it, you almost have to erase it, so you go with her flow. The woman we have is a wonderful actress, and she has a very different process than I do.”
“It’s a whole different animal working on it from the inside,” Burrows concurs.
He directed “Macbeth” this summer at the Elm Shakespeare Company in New Haven, with that company’s founder and artistic director, James Andreassi, in the title role. Now Burrows will play the part, while Andreassi comes to Medford to play Macduff.
“What I find fascinating about [Macbeth] is, unlike a lot of Shakespeare’s other villains, he struggles with his conscience to the degree where his equivocation is almost physicalized,” Burrows says. “That sets him apart from the Iagos and those other much more straight-ahead villains.”
The cast also includes Actors’ Shakespeare Project founding member Sarah Newhouse, doubling as Banquo and Lady Macduff, and Plum’s husband, company member Richard Snee, as Duncan.
The city-owned Chevalier is a hidden gem, Plum and Burrows say. The 2,000-seat venue was built in 1939 as part of the old Medford High School complex. John F. Kennedy spoke there, and Frank Sinatra sang there. But a new high school was built elsewhere, and the theater deteriorated, going dark through the 1980s. Reopening in 1992 after renovations, it has been used for community events, local theater productions, touring musicals, and concerts. But “Macbeth” is the most significant production there by a Boston theater company in memory, says John Costas of the city’s Civic Auditorium and Convention Center Commission.
Actors’ Shakespeare Project will use about 200 seats at the front of the venue and screen off the rest. Their costumes and set, a decaying mansion, have a post-World War I look, so when their Macbeth comes back from his battlefield and starts seeing ghosts, you might think of shell shock. But Plum and Burrows say they’re after the personal, not the political.
And while there will be graphic violence, Plum says, there won’t be as much splatter as in some productions: “We’re not blood-free, but we’re trying to keep the stage clean.”
Spooky though it is, this is “not a Halloween story,” despite the timing, Burrows says. But “Macbeth” in any season comes with some supernatural baggage: the tradition among theater people that the play is somehow jinxed, that to stage it is to invite calamity, and that even breathing its name is a danger. “People oftentimes get caught up in the witches and the idea that this story was cursed because Shakespeare used actual incantations in the play, and the covens of the world took issue with that and they cursed the play,” Burrows says. “That’s why you bang your head backstage all the time.”
Plum notes one of the more earthbound explanations of the curse: that “Macbeth” is a reliable box-office draw often produced by companies trying to stave off failure, and it thus became associated with bankruptcy. But both she and Burrows observe the old superstition against saying “Macbeth” inside a theater at any time except onstage, as part of a performance. They’ll use the preferred euphemism, “the Scottish play,” instead. Even at the coffee shop, they seem to avoid the M word reflexively.
Burrows says he learned about the curse during a performance of an Arthur Kopit drama in the 1980s at the American Repertory Theater, when he was backstage listening to another actor who said “Macbeth” aloud.
“He went onstage to make an entrance, and he came running back off and said, ‘I shouldn’t have been talking about that play! I went onstage and the seat I was supposed to sit in that comes up from the trapdoor wasn’t there!’ He wandered out in the dark and went to sit down — and there was just an empty trap!” Burrows says.
He laughs as he recalls it, but he says that he’ll be enforcing the ban on uttering “Macbeth” backstage in Medford.
“I’ve thrown people out of dressing rooms because of it,” Burrows says cheerfully. “They’re like, ‘Aw, that isn’t real.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, it probably isn’t true.’ Then I grab them by the scruff of the neck and throw them out.” According to the superstition, a series of actions must be performed in order to undo the harm: “You have to spin around three times, spit over your left shoulder, swear, and then ask permission to be let back in.
“It’s usually a bonding moment,” Burrows adds, and he and Plum both laugh.