- By William Shakespeare
- Directed & conceived by Teller and Aaron Posner
- Produced by Folger Theatre
- Reviewed by Steven McKnight
In the spirit of an advertising campaign that once claimed “this is not your father’s Oldsmobile,” Folger Theatre’s new production is not your English teacher’s Macbeth (and you should be glad of it!). This dark, violent thrill-ride of a production is a revelation, one that uses modern staging techniques to return to the play’s core. Shakespeare himself would heartily approve of a production that emphasizes the bloodshed, supernatural elements, and the madness that give the play timeless appeal to audiences ranging from his lower-class groundlings and to sophisticated modern fans.
Much of the attention given to this new version of the Scottish play arises from its use of magic and illusion developed by Teller (the silent partner of Penn & Teller fame) and the abundant amount of blood and gore displayed on stage. Yet these aspects arise organically from the work. Shakespeare’s story includes all of the supernatural elements emphasized in this production. In addition, Macbeth is replete with references to blood, so the production’s liberal use of the crimson liquid resonates naturally with the play’s text.
These elements would mean little unless they were enhancing a solid underlying work, but directors Teller and Posner have delivered a sleek and entertaining rendition of the familiar story. Through the use of minor trims and overlapping actions they make this version of Shakespeare’s shortest major tragedy even more taut and riveting. The directors also find some appropriate stress-relieving moments of humor in the text.
In the major roles, Ian Merrill Peakes makes an outstanding Macbeth, a modest man who is torn between decency and ambition. His tormented descents into moments of madness after the murders as his fate nears are especially memorable. Kate Eastwood Norris is less successful with a Lady Macbeth who is a sensual and emotional seductress, but not totally convincing as a dark force that could drive her husband to murder.
Generally the entire ensemble is strong. Among the standouts are Dan Olmstead as a regal Duncan, Cody Nickell as a dark and intense Macduff, Scott Kerns as a charismatic Malcolm who grows nicely during the play, and Eric Hissom, whose multiple roles include a hilarious interlude as the Porter.
All of the production elements work well. Daniel Conway’s stark two-tier set includes a gate between two ominous columns and is full of distressed metal and wood. Devon Painter’s costume design makes abundant use of leather and rough hewn kilts in a muted palette, a look that is modern, realistic, and appropriately grim. The depiction of the three Weird Sisters as reanimated corpses is an especially original touch. The lighting is full of smoke and shadows and the sound design is effectively eerie.
The stage magic bits work best when they come as surprises so I will not provide any spoilers. Let’s just say that the cast members do an excellent job with misdirection and enhance the illusions with their credible responses.
Special praise goes to John Kilkenny, an onstage percussionist whose versatile efforts work like a film score. He provides a broad range of sounds from simple drumming to more distinctive sounds that enhance crucial moments of dialogue and stage actions. Kudos also go to Fight Director Dale Anthony Girard, Fight Captain Joe Isenberg, and the cast for some of the most convincing staged fight scenes you will ever witness.
Washington, DC is fortunate to be the second city to host this new version of Macbeth (a co-production with River Theater Company of Red Bank, New Jersey) that has already attracted national attention. This production is sure to be one of the most talked about local theatrical events of the year. If you have any interest in seeing this Macbeth, you should move quickly. The intimate Folger space is already sold out for many performances in the limited run.
Warning: Production includes use of strobe lights and intense, graphic stage violence.
Running Time: 2:15 (one intermission).
Where: Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 East Capitol St., Washington, DC.
When: Until April 13, 2008.
Tickets: $34-$58. To purchase, call (202) 544-7077.