Life's but a walking shadow," Macbeth laments in his Shakespearean tragedy, "a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."
The Woman's Will production now playing in an empty storefront in Jack London Square is actually two hours, as Macbeth is the shortest of Shakespeare's tragedies, but otherwise that speech aptly sums up the experience.
In Joan Scout's staging, the shadows rear up hissing in silhouette behind a screen before strutting out as characters onto the floor of the shop next to Ben & Jerry's. That's where the show is squatting through the weekend before moving to the Exit Theater in San Francisco from Halloween through November 8.
As usual for Woman's Will, all the characters are played by women, at least when it comes to the live actors. Macbeth's vision of the future line of kings is represented by a video of adorable toddlers in tiaras, some of them male. Less usual is the fact that most of them are played by witches.
Artistic director Erin Merritt's five-actor adaptation casts all the characters in the play as the three weird sisters in disguise, except two unsuspecting mortals. Macbeth is one of them, naturally enough, as the witches' fortune-telling and his wife's nagging spur him to murder the king and seize the throne, but the second? His wife and coconspirator Lady Macbeth, whose deeds come back on her as surely as his do on himself? His buddy Banquo, who also hears the trio's prognostications? Maybe Macbeth's tormented nemesis Macduff? Nope. The other hapless human is Malcolm, the slain king's son and rightful heir — a virtual nonentity who appears only occasionally in the play.
Why are these two caught in the witches' web? What does it mean that Malcolm's father and brother, and everyone else he knows, are secretly witches? Why is Banquo gaping at the silhouetted witches one moment and then mouthing their lines off to the side? In the many scenes in which all the characters onstage are witches, are they just play-acting to amuse themselves?
Although similar in concept to last autumn's Woman's Will show, Mac Wellman's Antigone "as played by the three Fates," it's an interesting idea that the witches somehow conjured a whole world to ensnare Macbeth. Unfortunately, it's not particularly well thought-out or conveyed and ultimately feels like a confusing distraction.
It doesn't help that almost everyone in the play seems to be only going through the motions, witch and Muggle alike. The acting is clumsy and wooden, the lines rushed to a breakneck pace.
Valerie Weak's Macbeth seems simply to be yelling by rote, offering no glimpse of the character's descent from war hero to murder to raving paranoid. Only when Macbeth has just killed the king does Weak offer a glimmer of human behavior, red yarn dangling from her hands as she hyperventilates in paralyzed hysteria.
Julia Mitchell is stiff as Duncan, Mr. and Mrs. Macduff and various other characters. Desiray McFall doesn't make much of an impression as Malcolm, which isn't unusual for the character. The particularly fast-talking Treacy Corrigan is an oddly shifty Banquo, although whether the character's simply more treacherous than usual or whether it's the witch's leer bleeding through is unclear. She's charming as Macduff's questioning little boy, but is cartoonish as a hunched and grimacing old man reminiscent of Poopdeck Pappy and a snooty doctor who undermines what is otherwise this production's strongest moment, Lady Macbeth's sleepwalking scene.
Leontyne Mbele-Mbong's insidiously smooth Lady Macbeth is an oasis of eloquence and dynamism in an otherwise lackluster production. She's also a swaggering Ross and a ghoulish murderer, although with all the comings and goings of the three witches in many parts while everyone's wearing identical white button shirts and black slacks (costumed by Tammy Berlin), it's nearly impossible to tell which lord or soldier someone is intended to be at any given moment unless you know the play by heart. Mbele-Mbong stumbles as the porter, whose drunken comic rant is rarely done well and otherwise should simply be omitted.
In Saturday's performance, the porter scene was almost entirely drowned out by the loud buzz of the air conditioning kicking in, which had the happy side effect of making the blaring horns of nearby passing trains seem innocuous. It would have been awfully distracting, but what with all the witchiness and shouting, there are more distractions in this production than there is substance to distract from. There's a lot of sound and fury whooshing past, but its significance is lost amid the witchy hullaballoo.
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