Macbeth, The Murder Ballad

Sam Plattus PhotoMacCoy is a small-time drug dealer somewhere in Appalachia. Little Lady is the mother of his unborn child. They’re hot for each other and desperate to improve their lives. MacCoy’s uncle has a better thing going. So early in the play, Little Lady convinces “Mac” that they have to kill him and take over.

Sound familiar? 

In Holler: An Appalachian Tragedy—playing at Lyric Hall on Dec. 12 and 13 and directed by New Haven native Sam Plattus—playwright and lead Jillie Mae Eddy rips the plot of Macbeth out of the Scottish moors and sets it in the dark valleys of “mythic Appalachia.”

Writing the play for “two actor-musicians and an old-time band,” she winnows Shakespeare’s story into a lean, desperate thing. Though there’s a four-piece band off to the side, on the stage, it’s just two actors in one sparsely furnished room. Almost all the violence is offstage, though the language is frank enough to make up for it. And just like in the famous tragedy, MacCoy and Little Lady get what’s coming to them when the rest of the county figures out what they’re up to.

But it’s not as grim or predictable as it sounds. Part of this is thanks to the actors themselves. As MacCoy, Xander Johnson stalks the stage with a barely contained rage that keeps boiling over into desire and confusion. Eddy plays Little Lady almost as a vampire, and the old-school kind: seductive, frightening, and probably crazy. She also plays the secondary characters when need arises. Eddy has undeniable stage presence and a startlingly elastic voice, able to coo and screech, howl and sing.

Which brings us to the backbone of the show: the songs. Fully half of the show is sung, mostly in the style of folk murder ballads, with a hint of gospel and work songs thrown in for good measure. The songs are good enough to stand on their own as an album. Performed live in the context of the show—very ably, with Eric Epstein on guitar and banjo, Nate Houran on percussion, Miles Livolsi on upright bass, and Adam McOwen on fiddle, with Eddy playing mandolin from the stage and everyone singing—they have the effect of quickly showing just how well the story of Macbeth, drenched in blood and dark magic, translates to an Appalachian context.

Eddy chose—wisely, I think—to take the story but none of the language of Macbeth in writing Holler. Instead, she leans hard into the way people in Southern Appalachia speak. Once or twice, especially in the beginning, it comes on a little thick. But for the most part, it’s a glorious reminder of how much more Southern culture generally plays with the English language than Northern culture does. And when it counts, Eddy deploys that wordplay with real menace.

“Did you hear me?” Little Lady says toward the end of the play. When MacCoy doesn’t answer, Little Lady says, “I don’t chew my cabbage twice. Did you hear me?” It comes out as scarier than any overt threat would be. Similarly, the lyrics in the songs have some real gems in them. The snarling last line in “Long Road Down,” the last song of the show—“Did you meet your time with your head held high and all your sins confessed? / Oh, boy, did you give this life your best?”—is about as good a summation of the questions of the show as an audience could ask for.

Following in the vein of A Thousand Acres or Ran, Holler makes a fleet and strong argument for Shakespeare’s enduring relevance: Even when you do away with the timeless language and change the setting completely, the story itself can shock, affect, and linger. And it resonates with our own time, as veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan return to their homes in the rural South. Some do all right. Others don’t. Holler compels us to pay attention—to the past and the present.

Holler: An Appalachian Tragedy plays at Lyric Hall, 827 Whalley Ave., on Dec. 12 and 13, with shows at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. Tickets are $20 for general admission, $15 for students and seniors.

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