It’s rare for traditional, big budget Shakespeare productions to find new angles on the major works of America’s most-produced playwright, and even more rare for those angles to work well without falling into “Why are we doing this again?” territory.
But unlike more pedestrian interpretations of the Bard or wholly unnecessary Hamlet in Space: the Musical! Productions, Shakespeare Theatre Company’s newest take on Macbeth surprises and delights with a fresh perspective on the Weird Sisters. Add that to some more traditional interpretive approaches and STC’s reliable eye-widening spectacle make for an audience-friendly and fun play, though perhaps not one that will appeal to purists.
Tony-nominated director Liesl Tommy adjusts Macbeth’s time and place to put us in present day North Africa, an idea which is far from revolutionary, but contains the seeds of some of the most appealing parts of this production. Most immediately noticeable and laudable is the widespread casting of actors of color in the court of Scotland. While a show shouldn’t have to be set in a faraway land to have a majority of the cast be of color nor should a diverse cast mean that a show should feel foreign, Tommy makes the most of this setting by emphasizing the cultural mélange of the region by incorporating elements from Bollywood, African dance, and action movies into the design and blocking.
But most intriguingly, the generally diverse cast has an exception, the Witches who drive the title character to his vaulting and bloody ambition. The three Weird Sisters (and the oft-cut demonic Hecate who directs their action and eventually speaks with Macbeth) are not simply cast as White. But their roles are modulated in a way that is, in my experience, unique: they are shown as master manipulators, not just of Macbeth and Banquo, but also of the entire plot. This manipulation and the racial difference are parlayed into a brilliant, if unexpected, characterization of the witches as intelligence agents bent on the overthrow of order in Scotland via their catspaw Macbeth.
There are a few reasons this characterization is brilliant. Foremost among them is that Macbeth doesn’t make a whole lot of sense plot-wise in today’s age. What would cause a loyal vassal, honored by his lord, and given everything he could possibly want, to rebel and kill his king in cold blood? For Elizabethans, this answer was obvious. To them, Macbeth was a legendary traitor (for comparison, imagine a play about Benedict Arnold). Moreover, he had contact with the evil forces of the world (the Witches) and did not actively resist their temptations therefore he was ipso facto corrupted.
But we don’t buy that today. If you actually confront most directors about Macbeth’s evil path, they wave their hand about vaguely and mumble some platitude about absolute power and also probably something sexist (usually about Lady Macbeth). So, not so dissimilar to some political conversations around this past year’s Thanksgiving table. Those arguments didn’t convince in the dining room last fall, and they don’t convince onstage today. But Director’s Tommy’s explanation is a good one. The witches don’t offer vague promises of power. They offer the lush trappings of neo-colonialism recognizable in any of the third world war zones the so-called developed world has made their brutal playground: material support from a powerful ally, bars of gold, weapons, suitcases full of cocaine. With this alteration, a modern audience can understand the temptation viscerally, as the Elizabethans would implicitly. Even more brilliantly, Tommy accomplishes all this without significant variations on the text. How? You’ll have to see the show to see how that particular magic happens.
Other adjustments Tommy and this cast make to Macbeth aren’t quite the master strokes of dealing with the Witches, but may find enjoyment among some audiences. Strikingly, humor and spectacle are omnipresent in the first half of the play, forced into pretty much every crack they can find. Ways Director Tommy does this are varied, but two key bits are exemplary. Leading man Jesse J. Perez throws modern-day interjections into his dialogue ranging from topical references to a bit of technological humor. They certainly get chuckles from the audience. Purist Shakespeareans might sneer at them though, not only because they distract from the language, but also because they jolt concentration away from the dramatic action that’s happening all around them. There might be an argument that they ground the piece more in the modern-day setting, but that doesn’t change the distracting end result.
The spectacle, on the other hand, is the crown jewel of the Shakespeare Theatre Company experience, and though it might make the fans of stripped-down, ensemble-based Shakespearean plays grumpy, STC regulars won’t give a damn about their gripes.
directed by Liesl Tommy
closes May 28, 2017
Details and tickets
This Macbeth delivers spectacle in spades. Nikkole Salter wears some jaw-dropping African formalwear so stupendously that she elicits multiple vocal “Wows!” from the audience. There are also several interstitial scenes of spectacle, from a battle to a dance number, that deliver majorly on the big-budget expectations. The problem with these admittedly impressive scenes is that while they fit the world Tommy has created, they clash with the feel of the original play.
Macbeth is famously Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy. But with all the extra showiness and asides piled on top of an already mostly uncut (at least by contemporary standards) text, the whole structure starts to creak and teeter by the second act. Clocking in at nearly 3 hours at what seems suspiciously like the tightest-timed performance it will get all run, Macbeth is far from the high velocity affair usually staged. Perhaps this overall languorous and lengthy pace takes away from the traditionally powerhouse monologues of Macbeth and his Lady, which typically provide a break from the break-neck action, but don’t turn any heads here.
Yet not all the monologues were a loss. Keep an eye out for veteran actor Marcus Naylor as an old MacDuff, whose loss and steel showed through keenly in his monologue and gave this production its most emotionally powerful moment.
His bright star is one among many in this production that show through some of the dark valleys by virtue of honest intent to put on a good show and do something original with an old text. This production would be a fine introduction to Shakespeare for someone wary of the stiffness of Elizabethan plays or who may prefer a Broadway musical to a bout with the Bard. I probably wouldn’t bring a fanatic who worships at the altar of Avon to this production and that might just be their loss, because they would miss a most original take on Macbeth.
Macbeth by William Shakespeare. Directed by Liesl Tommy. Featuring Jessie J. Perez, Nikole Salter, Petronia Paley, Corey Allen, Nicole King, McKinley Belcher III, Brett Johnson, Marcus Naylor, Nilanjana Bose, Trinity Sky Deabreu, Sophia Ramos, Horace V. Rogers, JaBen Early, Myra Lucretia Taylor, David Bishins, Tim Getman, Naomi Jacobson, Stephen Elrod, Nicole King, Scotland Newton, Kelsey Rainwater, Christopher Michael Richardson, Brayden Simpson, and Anu Yadav . Scenic Design by John Coyne . Costume Design by Kathleen Geldard . Lighting Design by Colin K. Bills . Sound Design and Original Music by Broken Chord . Dramaturgy by Dre Lichtenberg . Production Stage Management by Brandon Prendergast. Produced by Shakespeare Theatre Company. Reviewed by Alan Katz.