Riffing on the Bard 

The Wyrd Sisters takes three of Macbeth's lesser characters and brings them front and center.

Two young women dressed in blazing pink are hopelessly lost in the dark forest. Seeking shelter from the rain, they enter a humble, rather creepy dwelling, whose sole visible occupant is a mysterious old woman with a predilection for herbs, roots, and preserved bits of various beasties. Through her agency, they will face their worst selves, form a new relationship, and emerge wiser.

Sound familiar? It should, because many of the elements figure in the Eastern European fairy tales that nourish our culture. But does it sound like Shakespeare's gruesome Macbeth? The ghost-ridden story of a man whose ambition overwhelms his honor and decency, leading him to repeated acts of murder before he's taken out by a man "not of woman born" and a bunch of soldiers carrying tree branches? Funny thing about that. Because new play The Wyrd Sisters owes much more to Shakespeare than to the Brothers Grimm. Like last year's Every Inch a King, in Sisters CentralWorks takes one of Shakespeare's tragedies, picks out all the salient features, and hands them over to the trio of Rica Anderson, Claudia Rosa, and Sandra Schlechter to make funny.

The team that developed Sisters take the most baffling of Macbeth's characters -- the three witches who prophesy the mad thane's rise and eventual downfall -- and use them to explore Macbeth's central questions. Are our lives governed by free will or by fate? What is the rightful role of ambition? And whose advice are we wise to ignore? In Shakespeare's original, Macbeth and his pal Banquo are returning victorious from battle when they encounter "three weird sisters" on the blasted heath. The witches tell Macbeth that he will be king, and Banquo that he shall be the father of kings. When Macbeth gets home, his wife convinces him not to wait around and see what happens, but to take matters into his own hands and secure that kingship by assassinating his liege -- kindly, too-trusting Duncan. The Macbeths get away with it, but are immediately set upon by sleeplessness, obsessive hand-washing, ghosts, and madness.

Sisters, set in the present day, dispenses with all the battles and child-murderings and so on and delves instead into witchly motivations and sibling rivalry. It's never really clear in the original why the witches get involved with Macbeth -- an act for which they are roundly chastised by their ruler, Hecate -- except that they like to stir up trouble. In Sisters, the crone Alice (Schlechter, with a fabulous cartoon witch voice) has a decidedly more benevolent bent. It's possible that she's not one of the witches at all, but Hecate herself, the underworld goddess who moves unseen through the world of the living, her arrival announced only by the barking of dogs (there's a wolf hanging around outside Alice's house -- coincidence?) When the two lost sisters stumble into Alice's house, she's got the cure for their confusion -- if they can swallow it.

Beth MacDonald (Anderson) has struggled long and hard to achieve her current position in the Macway Corporation, and she's managed to bring her dreaming, adventurous sister Bennie (Rosa) reluctantly into the fold. Bennie's not really into it; in her own words, "I just don't think I'm cut out for this full-of-rush thing." She's so not into it that as the two drive cross-country to an important meeting, she decides they should explore an interesting side road, which loses them in the Black Forest. Beth is beside herself, until Alice tells her fortune. In an echo of Macbeth, the older woman greets Beth by three names -- but instead of welcoming the Thane of Glamis, then the Thane of Cawdor, and finally the King, she tells Beth that the younger woman is fated to become Macway's Western Regional Sales Manager.

Of course, there already is a perfectly healthy Western Regional Sales Manager. And like Macbeth's King Duncan, Bob Duncan is showing no signs of vacating his throne. Unlike Macbeth's king, who is virtuous, Bob Duncan is a prick who's running the company into the ground. So with Alice's help, if you can call it that, Beth takes an unusual step up the corporate ladder.

Here, Macbeth and his lady are consolidated into one package, and that is the rigid, high-strung Beth. Which is great fun, because Anderson gets to both wield the knife and deliver the "out, damn spot" monologue -- in this case, an extended sales pitch for Macway's patented Dirt-Away (so safe you can brush your teeth with it!). But Beth suffers the same problem her spiritual predecessor Rae did in Every Inch: For some reason these uptight, hyper-ambitious characters end up almost more threatening than they are humorous. Anderson is a very funny actress, but this just isn't that funny a part, despite her best efforts. It's as if Anderson and Rosa have totally switched roles from the ones they played last year. Now Anderson is the stop-at-nothing sister, while Rosa is more relaxed and interested in adventure for its own sake, while Sandy Schlechter hobbles and bobbles, knits and pokes, and is generally hilarious.

The Berkeley City Club is a beautiful space for theater, with its high ceilings and French doors opening out onto greenery, and The Wyrd Sisters is a show that works well there. Director Zvaifler has taken full advantage of the room's large fireplace, creating an imposing hearth for the witch's home. In an unusually elaborate design, the rafters are strung with a selection of things from the Bone Room -- puffed-up frogs, unidentifiable furred things, a hoof -- while crates and shelves around the room hold jars and baskets of grisly ingredients. Meanwhile Gregory Scharpen's sound design, which incorporates everything from Hector Berlioz to some eerie quacking, nicely brings on the menace.

CentralWorks has made a habit of mining the Bard for material, which is perfectly appropriate considering how thoroughly he ripped off everyone else, and the company always finds a way to create something meaningful and contemporary from their gleanings. It's a formula that worked well in Every Inch a King, which recast King Lear as a modern story about three sisters dealing with a terminally ill father and a tatty old house. Every Inch was an amazing trick -- turning a tragedy into a humane comedy that both honored its source and managed to stand alone. The Wyrd Sisters, although it is well done and in places very funny, is not quite as successful. They've gone farther from the source material, so those determined to watch the play with an eye to picking out the similarities are going to have a harder time of it. The writing's not as snappy, although there are great lines like "God forgive me, I'm a smudge," and "We don't go door to door, we're a mobile sales team." Like Every Inch, Sisters has a feel-good ending that seems a little forced, which may be the natural consequence of turning a bloody tragedy into a modern comedy. That said, The Wyrd Sisters is still a good time, "twinned in nobility and honor" as Shakespeare might have said.

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