Outside of perhaps Troillus and Cressida, the perpetual challenge with Shakespeare is making these oft-told stories feel fresh. The task is doubly difficult with Macbeth, Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy, because even those who didn’t read it in 11th-grade English have probably already heard it as a cautionary tale of ambition and power. How, then, to convince the audience of the story’s urgency? How to make the inevitable not seem so…inevitable?
Jef Hall-Flavin’s new adaptation, which opened Friday at Park Square Theatre, aims to make the Scottish play new primarily through minimalism and speed. Sarah Bahr’s spare costuming blends medieval robes and hoods with commando boots and lean, modern armor. Joseph Stanley’s set features little more than a cracked double-sided mirror—which succeeds in both reflecting Macbeth’s worsening state and rendering the apparitions come to haunt him—and a small castle-shaped water basin in which potions are brewed and hands frantically washed. With a run time under two hours (including intermission), it’s well short of the two-and-a-half to three usually given the Scottish play. The result is a brisk, plot-driven version of this grim tale that relies more on a flexible, dynamic cast than on blood-spattered swordfights and special effects, to deliver the story’s deeper themes.
The first thing you’re likely notice is that the witches (also known as the Weird Sisters), whose lines my own 11th-grade English teacher had us read in spooky voices while flipping on and off the classroom lights, are not very weird at all. They wear brown habits and speak in slightly modified voices, eschewing more ghoulish possibilities like the sadistic nurses of Rupert Goold's 2010 film. Macbeth’s early interactions with the witches don’t portend much dread. The new war hero (Michael Ooms) and his comrade Banquo (Eric “Pogi” Sumangil) seem mostly bemused by them, and focus more on establishing their own camaraderie (which they sustain and complicate well throughout the play). The witches do some strange things with bodies in burlap bags, but as far as the “fair is foul and foul is fair” theme goes, it’s mostly fair at the start.
Enter Lady Macbeth. Vanessa Wasche executes Lady Mac’s iconic Act I monologues with a delicious blend of sensuality, ambition, and fear, setting the stage for an intriguing power struggle with Macbeth. The struggle itself, though, is beset by interruptions. Grief and violence lurk beneath this couple’s ambitions, but we’re never allowed to feel the undertow of their past traumas: the show gallops on to the next scene. I’m all for audience-friendly Shakespeare, but a play that’s so much about equivocation, and the murky layers of the subconscious, requires some silence, some empty spaces, for us to feel the dreadful pulse of its black, black heart.
This is a versatile and confident cast, though. Neal Beckman, as always, shifts effortlessly between an array of different characters, from Witch, to Kinsman, to Murderer, and Garry Geiken plays Macduff’s prescient suspicion of Macbeth to a T. Gabriel Angieri’s King Duncan is hapless in a sort of forgivable way, and the wisdom he emanates as the Doctor accentuates the tragedy of Lady Macbeth’s lost sanity. And as Macbeth’s comrades, Laura Esping and Pogi Sumangil create a jovial atmosphere that makes the return of Banquo’s ghost all the more unsettling.
Michael Ooms is a skilled actor, and he declaims his lion’s share of the text smoothly. He finds good variation and depth as the show progresses, but I was never fully convinced he’d lost his mind. The darkest moments with his evermore-reticent wife (“all full of scorpions is my mind,” for example) are glossed over or abandoned entirely. Ooms is left to conjure Macbeth’s madness by ranting and raving to himself, rather than discover it in relationship with his outstanding partner, Wasche.
For a text in which the word “blood” appears at least forty times, there’s not much of it in this production. This keeps the play safe from its Game of Thrones-esque pitfalls, but also sterilizes its origins: the mud and guts of an 11th-century battlefield. After Macbeth kills Duncan, Ooms and Wasche intertwine their bloodied hands, creating the image of two battered, writhing hearts. The barbarity of their acts suddenly seems strangely human, relatable—but like many of the play’s more resonant moments, it slips right by. I left the theatre curious to dust off my text from 11th-grade English, and heartened by the many fine actors in this town, but I wouldn’t say I left haunted. I wouldn’t say I left changed.