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Curse of 'Macbeth' Nearly Strikes Down Harlem Theater Production

 The Classical Theatre of Harlem prepares for its July run of
The Classical Theatre of Harlem prepares for its July run of "Macbeth" at The Richard Rodgers Amphitheater in Marcus Garvey Park.
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DNAinfo/Dartunorro Clark

HARLEM — The legendary curse of "Macbeth" almost struck down a Harlem performance with a double dose of toil and trouble.

An ancient superstition is being blamed for a near-calamity that almost flooded a Marcus Garvey Park stage just days before William Shakespeare's Scottish Play was set to be performed.

Rooftop drains clogged at the Richard Rodgers Amphitheater during Friday's torrential downpour, threatening to drown The Classical Theatre of Harlem's fourth annual Shakespeare in the Park production that's set to start July 8.

And organizers are blaming the curse of "Macbeth" — a long-held belief among theatrical types that Shakespeare used real spells in the lines uttered by its three witches, and that mentioning its name in a theater invites disaster.

“You can call it superstition … but undoubtedly there are many examples of bad things happening,” said Anthony Vaughn Merchant, who is a company member and will play the role of Porter in the play.

A number of eerie incidents across the globe have plagued companies that dared to take on the play, including Merchant himself, who said that while performing it in California he nearly fell and broke his neck.

In its first-ever stage performance in 1606, the actor playing Lady Macbeth died the day before the debut — prompting a five-year ban on the play.

Famed English actor Sir Laurence Olivier escaped death in a 1937 performance when a stage prop fell and narrowly missed him. Later in the same performance a sword struck an audience member, who died from a heart attack.

Traditionally actors avoid using the name "Macbeth," instead calling it the Scottish Play, referring to its setting in Scotland, to avoid being struck by the curse.

Shakespeare, Merchant said, used real black magic incantations to invoke “dark spirits” in the opening scene, which shows three witches huddled around a bubbling cauldron.

He said the dark spirits manifested in Harlem last week in the form of tree leaves that blocked the amphitheater's drains during heavy rainfall. 

The company’s producing artistic director, Ty Jones, said he received a midnight phone call Friday and rushed to the amphitheater, which sits adjacent to the Pelham Fritz Recreation Center in the park.

He climbed onto the roof and waded through nearly 8 inches of water with a flashlight to find and remove debris that had caused the clog — averting the torrent from flowing onto the stage.

The Parks Department confirmed the amphitheater's drain was clogged.

“Had we not been there, the water would have gone somewhere,” Jones said. “It would have flooded the entire center.”

Now the theater company is hoping that a ritual long-believed to reverse the curse — turning three times and asking "the angels and ministers to defend us" — will help avoid further disaster.

“We would have been crippled and not have been able to do our season of 'Macbeth,'” Jones said.

“The angels and ministers were on our side.”

The company now is hoping that ritual is enough.

Jones said the organization serves a unique purpose for the Harlem and uptown communities, which is where most of its diverse crew lives.  

In the past four years the company has produced Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” “A Midsummer Night's Dream,” and “Romeo and Juliet."

The play is slated to open for previews July 8 and July 9 at 8:30 p.m. at the venue at 124th Street and 5th Avenue.

Opening night is slated for July 10 at 8 p.m.

The play is expected to run until July 31, running from Tuesday to Sunday at 8 p.m. with Friday performances beginning at 8:30 p.m.

All performances are free and open to the public.