If there’s an award for best promotional materials at Fringe, Macbeth in the Basement would win hands down: their paper crowns are a hot commodity. But in attempting to adapt the world of Shakespeare’s Scotland to the smaller drama of an American high school, Macbeth doesn’t nearly reach the same standard. It’s a bold effort from a group of young performers, but it is under-rehearsed and its disparate elements lack much sense of cohesion.
The show bills itself as a translation of the royal power dynamics of the bard’s original Macbeth to a situation more familiar to a contemporary audience: the sexual politics of a group of American teenagers.
In the modern scenario, “King of the Castle” status is supposedly awarded on the basis of who’s hooking up with whom and who is going steady with the hottest girl in the school. And in this case, our title character (John Posner) is king of the hill because he’s dating a girl named “Lady M” (Regina Coyle), the hottest commodity around, who presents herself to the audience as someone who intentionally uses sex for manipulation and power. Macbeth is no exception to her machinations.
Okay. There are some inherent problems with that scenario—for instance, if Macbeth is already in charge when we start the play, then that eliminates the conflict between loyalty and ambition that drives the early development of the Shakespearian original. But still, that’s an idea worth exploring, right? And that’s the largest part of what makes this production so frustrating, because it’s not explored at all.
The production starts out with a jarring impact: all five characters, most of them dressed in military camouflage, robotically reciting the pledge of allegiance repeatedly as if under mind control. It’s a great introduction, and promises perhaps an exploration of the cultural effects of American militarism, or some other dynamic of violence that would translate well to the original Macbeth.
Macbeth in the Basement
Running time: 1 hour
Details and tickets
But after that wonderful opening scene, that entire thread is ignored, except for the camouflage jackets—which are worn throughout the duration of the show for no particular reason at all that I could tell. Outside of the concluding scene, just about the entire development of the modern “translation” is presented by the characters giving us the briefest of exposition through short direct address soliloquies.
The balance of the play, for the most part, is simply a bland recitation of certain scenes from Shakespeare’s original, very few of which actually translate to the unexplored modern scenario. Why are Macbeth and Lady M plotting for power through murder when they’re already in charge? Why are there witches? Why did we kill Duncan (Meghan Burroughs) again? Is Malcolm (Alexander Warren) literally running to England? Is “spot” a dog and is Lady M telling him to go outside? It’s as if we’re watching two plays side-by-side where neither has much to do with the other.
Because of that, it’s hard for any of the actors to develop any chemistry with each other. Aside from the scenes where Lady M is presenting herself as a femme fatale, it felt like the characters were fairly interchangeable parts simply doing their own thing without much semblance of plot or structure.
It’s another blow to the actors that they’re performing in one of the theaters at Gallaudet University, which requires any shows performed there to either have a simultaneous ASL interpreter or to project the text visibly to the audience. For this show, the full script is projected, which regrettably makes all the errors in recitation glaringly obvious even to those who don’t know the play. A compelling performance of Shakespeare is hard enough to deliver for performers who know the lines by heart, and it seemed clear that the actors simply needed more time to get comfortable with the material.
Interspersed among all this are several vignettes of physical theater, and these provide a welcome break from the troubled recitation that surrounds them. They are creative, compelling and well-executed: definitely the best part of the show. One could only wish that the performance had centered more on the energy and innovation in these scenes rather than on an uninspired delivery of the bard’s original work, which seemed to exist only to fill time.
There’s inspiration here in fits and starts, but this particular production is dragged down by the weight of everything else that surrounds it.
Macbeth in the Basement by Annie Bryan . Director: Talley Murphy . Cast: Duncan: Meghan Boroughs, Lady M: Regina Coyle, Kevin: Lindsay Garber, Macbeth: John Posner, Malcolm: Alexander Warren . Production Manager and Scenic Designer: Lhana Ormenyi . Lighting Designer: Elizabeth Schweitzer . Props and Costumes: Lily Komarow . Sound: Robert Culbertson . Composer: Nick Kemp . Assistant Producer: Morgan Maloney . Stage Manager: Isabel Hellman . Assistant Stage Manager: Jessica Ashworth . Produced by Kit Rees . Reviewed by Dante Atkins.