For a play whose name actors make a big deal about not uttering because it's supposed to be bad luck, Macbeth has been conspicuously popular around here of late. Mark Jackson's staging for Shotgun Players is the fourth local production in a few months, following Killer Bee's fascist-fetish production, the African-American Shakespeare Company's hip-hop MacB, and Woman's Will's all-witch version. Macbeth hasn't quite saturated the market like A Midsummer Night's Dream this season, but on the Shakespeare front it definitely seems like there's something in the air that evokes a frolic-or-stab impulse. Jackson's take on the Scottish play is particularly keen on the stabbing.
The show begins with a grinning bag-lady chattering to herself, inaudible amid the din of war behind her, dragging the body of a man behind her. She then drops to the ground with the soldier's bloody body splayed over her, a bloody slash down his chest and blood dripping down his face to pool in his eye. He relates the glorious deeds of Macbeth on the battlefield to the king and the lords and princes who pose around him in natty suits like models in a menswear catalog, then depart and return to strike exactly the same poses. It's a striking picture, but it's hard to focus on anything he's telling them because, dude, he's got blood in his eye!
This is a hyper-stylized Macbeth, though the surfeit of style also alienates the audience from the action and often distracts from the substance. That's particularly an issue with Blythe Foster's Lady Macbeth. Entering with a go-go dance and cartwheel in a slinky green dress, Foster tackles Lady Macbeth's monologues with the gusto and physicality of a cheerleader. This is a very young and sensual Lady M, and she's stronger when she's focusing her feminine wiles on her husband to prod him to murder the king than in her super-theatrical soliloquies, delivered directly to the audience as if they were a clever trick she'd like to show us rather than anything she wants to say. This quality makes her magnetic to watch but difficult to buy as a character with any kind of interior life.
The various thanes and princes come off as smarmy corporate types, like the ad execs on Mad Men, from John Mercer's exaggerated bluster as a buffoonish Duncan to Ryan Tasker's shifty glower as Duncan's son and rightful heir Malcolm. Daniel Bruno breezes through as a briskly businesslike but sympathetic Ross with an omnipresent briefcase.
Craig Marker's Macbeth is basically a lunk who's out of his depth in his own murderous rise to power. Marker's delivery of the speeches is passable, but what really makes him work in the role is his body language. His unease and paranoia is manifest in the way his hands are always working with nervous energy, and his cocky bravado later on is priceless. Daniel Duque-Estrada makes a strong Banquo in his ease with Cassady Bogatin as son Fleance, his awkwardness with Macbeth, and especially in his bloodied and leering stroll through Macbeth's cocktail party.
Zehra Berkman shines as the witch (down from the usual three), here a crazed street person who talks to herself, and as a pregnant and doomed Lady Macduff who despairs of her husband. Reid Davis' drunken porter is unusually entertaining in the usually painful comic monologue. Kevin Clarke as a stony-faced hitman who could have stepped out of a gangster movie, but Peter Ruocco is stiff and badly miscast as the avenging Macduff.
It's a sleekly modern Macbeth, with frequent changes of slick formal wear devised by Valera Coble and designer Nina Ball's stark black and gray stage with a glittery gold fringe curtain. The fights are sharply choreographed by Dave Maier, and Sarah Huddleston's sound and Jon Tracy's lights get a workout between thunder and lightning and thumping disco. The lights frequently go down with a thunk for Macbeth's reveries about his bloody rise to power, a spotlight tight on his face and the kind of throbbing hum that you hear inside of a spaceship in a sci-fi movie.
There are some marvelously inventive moments in the staging, especially the riveting reimagining of Macbeth's return to the weird sisters for some follow-up fortunetelling. In this version the witch interrupts the Macbeths in a moment of passion and then force-feeds Lady Macbeth various pocket potions that possess her with demonic voices.
As compelling as such moments are, they don't add up to a coherent tragedy. Jackson seems more focused on creating tableaux than with telling a story, and it becomes like a slasher movie in the sense that it's hard to take anything that's going on seriously, no matter how gruesome.
"It will have blood," Macbeth says in one of his freakouts, "they say, blood will have blood." But for all the copious gore and occasional hanky-panky, the passions in Jackson's production feel curiously bloodless.
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