Alana Wiljanen made a good choice in calling her group’s co-created Shakespeare adaptation MacBheatha, instead of the more famous Macbeth, Shakespeare’s sordid tale of a Scotsman murdering his way to power. Her scrappy bunch of (mostly) University of Richmond students dissolve the classic into its atomic parts then reconstitute it into something new. What this group has put onto the Atlas Theater’s stage (care of Capital Fringe) is much more than your average regurgitation of the Bard’s verse.
Their work challenges audiences to step up their erudition game to more fully explore the many textures of Shakespeare’s context and content. Liberally borrowing from a wide palette of performance and storytelling techniques, MacBheatha mashes up history, theater, acrobatics, and dance to create a cryptic collage. If spending an hour parsing a Shakespearean puzzle appeals to your sensibilities, then this show will be a whole lot of fun for you.
Theater practitioners have a truism that classic plays actually have three settings: when the play is set by the author, when the play was first performed, and when the play is being performed right now. Wiljanen and her cast take this bit of wisdom literally by playing cut-and-paste with this quotable text over two frames: a narration by the real historical Macbeth and the story of the Gunpowder Plot against King James I, during whose reign Shakespeare wrote the play. The goal here seems to be to make the implied real, embodying the allusions contained in the text.
closes July 22, 2017
But those aren’t the only flourishes adorning this production. The set (and the action of the infamous Three Witches) are dominated by aerial silks, acrobatic instruments of sheer cloth hanging from the ceiling which the actors adroitly scale. They provide an extra visual bang for MacBheatha, symbolizing the play’s spiritual side, and some of the best moments of the play are when Wiljanen’s cast uses them in surprising ways.
But that’s not all, folks. The lead, the Scotsman Macbeth, is also played by three actors. Nunzio Cicone, representing Macbeth’s noble side, shows the kind of stage presence and skill that should land him spicy roles on DC stages. Megan Wirtz takes Macbeth’s more self-effacing lines while Wiljanen herself embodies his bloody ambition with cutting grace. See, I told you this would be a puzzler.
I wouldn’t normally take up this much of a review explaining elements of a production, but MacBheatha layers so many production concepts together that the explanation becomes necessary. Herein lies both the joy and the sorrow of this production.
If you’re already up to speed on the history, if have a strong grounding in the famous (but not universal) Shakespearean text, and if you have a high tolerance for the dancey interpretations of acrobatics, MacBheatha is a layered soup of complexity to savor long after supping. But coming in blind to any of these aspects obscures the entirety.
Ideally, audience members should be able to follow along with Joseph Ickowski, who plays key roles in both historical frames, comedically lampooning the Bard’s character assassination of Macbeth and then tragically taking blows as Guy Fawkes in the second half. But if one has no idea of the reputation of Macbeth as a story, his comedy could fall flat. If one isn’t familiar with the vagaries of the religious politics and personalities of Shakespeare’s time, the tragedy of a Macbeth-infused Guy Fawkes lacks bite. [In case you’re unfamiliar with the history, Wiljanen gives extensive notes here.]
From the clear and driving melody of Shakespeare’s action-packed hit, MacBheatha pulls out jazzy tangents to the point of what is for some cacophony and others ecstasy. As all good art has, this production has an earworm je ne sais qoui which compels me to recommend this show as an intellectual strop to hone one’s wits.
Perhaps as this group grows it will find a more unified storytelling voice (I would point them to the sharp co-creative work of Happenstance Theater or Theater Alliance’s brilliant productions by Mollye Maxner) that will allow them to tune their raw talent. And though it is raw, they have some extraordinary talent, and their work can and should be the Sunday Times crossword of your Fringe experience.