Bill Hartnett, left, and Ellie Shepherd, right, pose in front of pictures of their days on-stage.

In a 100-year-old former schoolhouse in Mariemont, the curtain rises on a disturbing scene: An unconscious man, head lolled forward, sits in a tall, Shakespearean chair on-stage. Around his neck is a noose, tied to the rafters. A dark-clad “Lady Macbeth” stands nearby, pondering her murderous plot.

What follows is a dark comedy.

“Hell hath no fury like the wrath of a woman scorned,” Shakespeare said. And this Lady Macbeth has been scorned one time too many in a theater review. So she and her actor husband take revenge on a malicious drama critic in an abandoned theater.

Yet after the curtain closes on the Mariemont Players’ January production of Stage Fright, the actors doff their costumes, wash off the copious makeup and throw on jeans and sweats. They return to the stage, grabbing tools, wash rags or plates of food along the way, to tear down the set. It’s time to make room for the Mariemont Players’ next production.

While other theater groups might leave teardown to the technical crew, the Mariemont Players’ Walton Creek Theater cast is more like a family. There’s no job beneath anyone, and no one reluctant to jump in and help. “It’s definitely an active board,” remarks Charlie Sampson, member-at-large.

Theater Steeped in History

As if to prove Sampson’s point, the president of the board, Garry Davidson, is leading a tour through the old four-room schoolhouse. Built in 1869 but reconstructed in 1910 after a fire, the home of the Mariemont

Players is a rich amalgam of school remnants: a chalkboard hangs in the green room and coat hooks line the wall of the dressing room. But it’s also a working theater, with stairwells full of pictures for set designs and various rooms devoted to props, costumes and technical production.

Although the Mariemont Players didn’t move into the old schoolhouse until 1958 — the group purchased it at an auction for $13,000 — it’s one of the area’s oldest community theater organizations, starting out as a church group in 1936. It’s also one of the only ones to have a permanent home.

Open Call for Talent

Around town, Davidson comments, Mariemont Players has a reputation for being cliquish. But he says, “What really is the case is that if you’re going to get up on that stage, you’re going to earn it.”

All actors are unpaid and have to audition for every role. Regulars, too. “That’s written in our bylaws,” Davidson points out.

Six performances each year are $17 per ticket or $90 for a season. All the proceeds go for the operating budget ($120,000 per year or $20,000 per show), but concessions often benefit a local cause.

Mariemont Stars

A mile up the road from the Walton Creek Theater, Ellie Shepherd and Bill Hartnett — known as “Mr. and Mrs. Mariemont Players” to many — live in a yellow farmhouse in Indian Hill. The walls are lined with past production photos and Shepherd’s set-design work, including a sculpted horse from Equus and a character from The Rainmaker. The hallway floor is tiled with programs, and a sign leading from the study to the kitchen reads, “Nobody gets in to see the wizard. Not nobody not no how.”

The house, set like a stage, captures its owners’ lives in the spotlight.

Ellie, 78, is the oldest living member of Mariemont Players. She’s been acting at the theater since the early 1960s. Hartnett didn’t begin with the group until Absurd Person Singular in 1977. The two met when Hartnett auditioned for the part of Buffalo Bill in Annie Get Your Gun at the Beechmont Players. He instead landrd the lead in The Night of the Iguana with the Mariemont Players in 1978. Shepherd was playing the female lead. The two married four years later and have been on-stage ever since.

Although they’re active with different theater groups they always come back to Mariemont. “It has a reputation for excellence,” Shepherd says. “The quality of shows they put on is amazing. There’s a packed house every night.”

Ken Strunk majored in theater in college, then headed to Los Angeles to find work. The Northern Kentucky native moved back to the Tristate and in 1982 landed a Mariemont role. “I’m not really sure I would be involved in acting today if I hadn’t auditioned,” he says. “It’s been a wonderful life ever since.”

He and hiw wife, actress and former News 5 anchor Ann Reskin, began dating after they auditioned for a play at Mariemont in 1984. Today, Strunk acts professionally. He has a role in Disney’s movie Secretariat, which opens this fall. He also has been on TV, including Army Wives, Boston Legal, The West Wing and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Strunk, Shepherd and Hartnett are just a few of the “Mariemont stars.”

A Family Affair

Davidson also met his wife through the Mariemont Players. Or, rather, he met the Players through her. Davidson went to see Christine Dye in Crimes of the Heart at Mariemont 15 years ago. “She put on a pair of pantyhose right under her dress on stage, without an ounce of self-consciousness,” he recalls. “It was the funniest thing I’d ever seen.”

Not only was she funny, but Dye was a “phenomenal” actress, Davidson recalls. “That’s when I realized I was going to marry her.” The two started dating and married a few years later, and Davidson has been involved with the theater group ever since, either acting, producing, directing or serving on the board.

Now, a few hours after the curtain closed on her performance of Stage Fright, the scorned “Lady Macbeth” finishes her work on-set and finds Davidson, her husband, in an outer room of the theater. She’s wearing sweats and her hair is now pulled back in a ponytail.

“I’m going home to be with the kids,” she tells him, waving as she heads for the door.

Davidson nods at her disappearing back and says, “Christine Dye. Another one of our stars.” ■