It's been raining Macbeths lately, many of them very alternative. Our president got the royal treatment in the Tragedy of MacBush at the Alice Arts Center. MacHomer choked on ambition and powdered doughnuts at Cal Shakes as one actor did The Simpsons doing Macbeth. Central Works focused on The Wyrd Sisters selling cleaning products that would get out that damned spot once and for all. Placed beside all these other versions, Impact's new Macbeth seems almost traditional, modern dress and laptop computers notwithstanding.
Macbeth is a soldier -- here a mediocre one -- and director Melissa Hillman keeps the focus on what that means in terms of his personality and his interactions with other people. While he's young, dumb, and full of, well, enthusiasm, the others in his unit are bigger, stronger, and probably more skilled. His ascension has as much to do with politics as anything. Pete Caslavka's Macbeth has much of the puppy about him -- he's eager to please his fellows, his king, and his sexy wife. Once the killing starts he's totally perplexed, and compensates by recasting himself as a big spender in a shiny suit.
When played as a middle-aged man or older, Macbeth has a certain desperation -- that of a man who has been passed over for one too many promotions, or resigned himself to rising so high and no higher, who unexpectedly gets another shot. Played as a young man, the energy is different, a sense of "If I don't take it now it will never be mine." His impatience is plausibly understood as a consequence of youth, which Caslavka captures well.
Alyssa Bostwick's Lady Macbeth is a corporate climber in her own right, and a lot smarter than her spouse. Unlike some versions where it's not clear what hold the Lady has over her husband, here it's obvious. To quote Tom Robbins, she knows how to apply a "twist of the vaginal wrench" to get what she wants.
It's hard to watch this Macbeth without thinking about last season's H4, Impact's remix of Henry IV parts one and two. H4 was such a leap forward for the company that it set the bar high. The Impact Macbeth isn't as sleek an outing as H4 was, but that may have as much to do with subject matter and venue as with presentation. In the light, high-ceilinged Eighth Street Studio, H4 was clean and elegant, with beautifully stylized sword fights. Macbeth is a lot grittier and grimier, and the claustrophobia of LaVal's small space conspires with the story and the dark-blue-painted back wall (liberally festooned with blood) to create an atmosphere of dankness and despair. The fights (directed, as were H4's, by Christopher Morrison) are a lot nastier. There's more stabbing and grunting -- and less honor -- in them.
There was also a surfeit of charisma in the H4 cast. Here there are more actors, yet fewer who command the audience's attention. While Caslavka and Bostwick are strong as the thane and his lady, Casey Jackson's Banquo is curiously flat and unaffected at the beginning (although he gets better, oddly, once he's dead). Duncan's children Donalbain and Malcolm are less than convincing, although Noah Luce's louche Malcolm is nicely smarmy when he explains why he shouldn't be king. H4's Dave Dyson takes a funny turn as the porter and a creepy one as Macbeth's hired thug.
There are also some intriguing Impact newcomers with great presence, notably Jon Nagel as Rosse and Skyler Cooper as Lenox. As affable as Jackson is as Banquo, it would be interesting to see Nagel or Cooper try the role.
One of the most interesting choices relates to the witches, who here are not only male but suits. While their discussion of potion-making and leading mortals astray has been cut, they have been given more agency. Wielding cell phones and briefcases instead of eye of newt and toe of frog, these three mysterious functionaries -- Businessmen? Politicians? Junk-bond dealers? -- have traded Hecate for Mammon. Hillman brings them back near the end in soldiers' garb, suggesting that they've manipulated Macbeth for geopolitical gain rather than out of witchly mischievousness. These three are also notably dispassionate, and paradoxically more entertaining, than the witches tend to be. Having them reappear lessens the impact of the play's central question about destiny versus free will. Macbeth's fall is all the sadder if we understand him as a soldier who has been used and then abandoned, or as a little boy who got caught up in a game he didn't understand until it was too late.
Overall, what Impact has done is make Macbeth accessible in a briskly bloody way, stripping out side commentary in favor of a brutal, headlong production.
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