Yes, yes, I know; the family that slays together stays together. But why is it that of all the astonishing plays in Will Shakespeare’s oeuvre, it is this story of a homicidal Scottish King that gets reimagined the most frequently?
There is, of course, the lugubrious MacBird, in which the 36th President dispatches the 35th to assume power; there is the delightful Christopher Walken movie Scotland, Pa., where an ambitious young couple fry the owner of a donut shop to take over the operation (the shop, of course, is “Duncan’s Donuts”); there is even MacHomer, Rick Miller’s one-actor show in which the Thane of Cawdor takes on the unmistakable characteristics of a well-known nuclear power plant employee. And now the good local playwright Chris Stezin has invented yet another iteration — Mack, Beth, having its world premiere at Keegan Theatre. It is, I’m sad to say, a disappointment.
Macbeth provides a template, and Stezin dutifully paints by the numbers. Do we need an aging monarch who yearns to leave his empire to his son? William Aitken is Robert Duncan, the founder of one high-tech firm which has just acquired another. Do we need a brashly ambitious couple, prepared to do anything to acquire power, and a great condo? Meet Elizabeth Wright MacIlraith (Jennifer J. Hopkins) and William “Mack” MacIlraith (Andrew Keller) — he, a smoothly rapacious business whiz; she, a public relations maven who finds power, in Henry Kissinger’s phrase, to be the ultimate aphrodisiac.
Do we need weird sisters, with the power to prognosticate? Emily Cerwonka, Izzy Smelkinson and Tyasia Velines are three geeks (Stezin’s term) who spend the day in the coffee shop on their devices, following the market and periodically telling Mack what his next move should be. How about a loyal friend who will eventually be betrayed? Josh Sticklin is James Shaw, the war hero and Mack protégé.
And thus Stezin sends them on their path — the same path Shakespeare sent his similar characters down, four hundred years ago. Mack has honchoed the acquisition and is rewarded by a huge salary increase, but he wants more — an ownership stake in the company. Beth urges him to plunge the knife in Duncan’s back and take power; as she does she becomes more and more — well, just think of Lady Macbeth’s “unsex me now” scene, and then imagine the opposite of unsex. Then bad things happen. Then more bad things happen.
But to what end? MacHomer and Scotland, Pa were funny, juxtapositioning our absurd everyday lives with the bloody design of Shakespeare’s play. MacBird sought to challenge Lyndon Johnson’s legitimacy in the teeth of the Viet Nam war. On the other hand, Mack, Beth seems designed simply to show that what was true in 1606 is also true in 2017.
But is it? The story of the manipulative woman who satisfies her urge to power through her husband has been around since approximately the time of Eve, but does it make sense today? Lady Macbeth cried “unsex me now” precisely because the restrictions on her sex made it impossible for her to boldly acquire power in her own right, but Beth is a name partner in her public relations firm. Her strivings for additional power through her husband (she wants enough leisure time to sit on the boards of nonprofits, which believe me is not the kick she imagines it to be) seems like mere gluttony.
The result is dialogue which seems forced and uncomfortable. Aitken — a fine actor — is particularly unconvincing as the corporate lord (Sarah Holt does good work as his wife), although he is much better once Duncan goes off the rails. The entire first Act, which sets up and consummates Mack’s betrayal of Duncan, is painfully slow; director Mack Ripa’s cast (with exceptions, which I’ll discuss later) utters dialogue as though they are speaking the lines they have only after considering, and rejecting, three or four alternatives.
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closes February 11, 2017
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Stezin labors hard to make his story plausible while tracking Macbeth, not always successfully. Beth meets James Shaw’s stay-at-home wife Donna (Autumn Seavey Hicks) at a restaurant, apparently for the sole purpose of establishing certain qualities in Donna which make the dramatic ending believable. But the whole rest of the scene is tedious small talk, done between people who obviously don’t like each other but are too polite to say so. Stezin thus violates one of the prime rules of playwriting: never let them see you sweat.
There are maddening inconsistencies and puzzlers. There is a crucial (offstage) criminal trial, but I can’t tell how it ended up. At one point Mack notes that the case fell apart after the disappearance of a key witness; at another Beth says that the defendant was convicted; at a third point Mack says that it doesn’t matter whether the defendant was convicted or not since accusation was enough to ruin him. The issue of Mack and Beth’s childlessness (it is unclear whether it is by choice or not) comes up so frequently that it seems as though their evil is a direct result of it, which I don’t believe is Stezin’s intent. A 14-year-old girl suddenly goes from the U.S. to Ukraine with a quarter million dollars in her pocket, but her mother (Karin Rosnizeck) continues to work as Mack and Beth’s maid. There is the occasional misused word: “quisling” is not a synonym for “minion”; it means traitor (named after Vikdun Quisling, who betrayed Norway to the Nazis).
But enough of that. Let’s talk about what’s great in this play: the incandescent performance of Jennifer Hopkins as Beth. She is fully committed to her character from the first moment of the edgy, sexy conversation between her and James Shaw which opens the play, and there is never a moment thereafter where we don’t know who she is. And who she is is complicated: a bundle of anxiety who is aroused by her own fear. She snarls and stalks, but is at the same time haunted. She is a ticking time bomb, set for sixty seconds. She, like several other characters, must make a rapid transition toward the end of the second Act, but she has laid her foundation from the get-go with her twitchy portrayal of this unique woman.
This review may sound like I hated the production, but I didn’t. Hicks, Keller and Sticklin all acquitted themselves well; it had good geeks, especially Velines; and Stezin has put some real drama amidst the dead ends and false starts. I was simply disappointed. Stezin is capable of some wonderful work (This Perfect World was one of the best one-actor plays I’ve seen here, imaginative and profound) and both Ripa and Keegan usually put out first-rate stuff. As Stezin works to refine this play — as I hope he does — I recommend he use as his model not only the Bard of Avon but another fine playwright: Chris Stezin, doing his best work.
Mack, Beth by Chris Stezin. Director: Matt Ripa. Featuring: William Aitken, Emily Cerwonka, Autumn Seavey Hicks, Sarah Holt, Jennifer J. Hopkins, Andrew Keller, Karin Roznizek, Izzy Smelkison, Josh Sticklin, Tyasia Velines. Scenic Design: Matthew Keenan . Lighting Design: Katie McCreary . Costume Design: Julie Cray-Leong . Sound Design: Gordon Nimmo-Smith . Fight Choreographer: Casey Kaleba . Stage Manager: Aria Velz . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.