Last Friday night, my friend and sister theatre buff Adrienne Reiswerg accompanied me to the Upperstage of the Indiana Repertory Theatre to see “Macbeth” as directed by Janet Allen. According to cast members during the Talk Back session with the audience after the show, this modernized, 90-minute adaptation of William Shakespeare’s violent tragedy has been well-received by high school audiences.
“That’s because it’s like a video game,” Adrienne said. Someone else in the audience said it reminded him of Halo, specifically.
“Yes!” I thought. That is exactly its appeal. I haven’t played Halo myself, but teens at my local public library have told me about it. Library copies of the Halo-based novels are rarely on the shelf.
The IRT’s “Macbeth” is similarly fast-paced and exciting. All of the guys wear military gear. They all carry several weapons each. Someone is always saying in Shakespeare-speak, “Let’s go, men!” and the men are always charging off to kill someone. Meanwhile, there is a beautiful, sexy woman urging her husband to “Be a man!” Three bizarre witches swoop in and out of the shadows making riddle-like predictions. There are beatings, there is blood, there is death.
If I were in high school, I think I would pronounce this production “Sweet!” Especially if I had been prepared to understand it ahead of time.
As a middle-aged adult, I went into it cold but hopeful. I never had to read “Macbeth” in high school (I did, however, have to read “Romeo and Juliet” more times than I can count) and I have never read it as an adult. All I really knew about it before Friday night is that theatre people believe you should never say “Macbeth” inside your theatre. You should call it “the Scottish play” or “Mackies” or something like that if you want to avoid bad luck.
Adrienne read the Sparknotes the night before to refresh her memory. This freed her to notice nuances in the acting and in the design elements. (More about these in a moment.) I just didn’t have time. Besides, I wanted to see if the piece would engage me as is.
It does! And not just because the man who plays Macbeth (Andrew Ahrens) is Lord-have-mercy hot. Actually, everyone in this show is attractive in one way or another, but even beyond that, this production makes a play that Shakespeare wrote around 1609 interesting to all kinds of 2008 audiences.
When the house opens, three feminine figures draped head-to-toe in black are standing in a clump in the center of the stage. As people are finding their seats, the three figures split apart slowly and move around the stage like particles suspended in a viscous solution. Oceanic music plays at an almost subliminal level in the background. It has a depth that made me think of whales, but it is accented with chimes and other flashing elements that reminded me of sunlight on the waves. (Sound design and music composed by Todd Mack Reischman.) It is eerie but also primeval and therefore sort of comforting. Intriguing rather than threatening.
After the curtain talk, however, the first spoken scene of the play is of a torture. Two soldiers drag out a man with a bag over his head. They take him to a lone tree on the mound-like stage. The tree is draped in chains.
And so begins a timeless story of ambition, greed, betrayal, and regret.
Adrienne said afterwards that the structure at the back of the set (you can see it in the photo, above) reminded her of the Twin Towers in New York City. The tree (which you can not see in the photo) brought up all kinds of symbolism for her. I agree with her that Gordon R. Strain’s sparse set design is rich with meaning.
Myron Elliott, Jr’s costume design is also discussion-worthy. For example, both Adrienne and I thought of burqas whenever we looked at the three Witches, who are on stage throughout the piece. If you look closely, you will see mesh portions over their eyes, but it seems as if the women are completely covered. However, sometimes the actors use their long skirts and headscarves as props, turning the burqas into more than symbols of submission or protection. The three women reveal parts of themselves – they quickly turn out to be quite individualized – and connect with each other, and emphasize words and themes in the play, all through their handling of the thick, smoky fabric. Milicent Wright, Alexa Silvaggio, and Kirstin Dulaney cleverly embody the three weird Witches, who, in turn, also serve as Murderers and other characters.
I was entranced by Betsy Cooprider-Bernstein’s lighting design. Characters sometimes move through dramatic hallways of light that are in stark contrast to the shadows, while out on the moor, the light is still somber but also dappled and spacious-feeling. At other times, the light focuses itself into a roiling cauldron. “Double, double, toil and trouble!” the Witches chant around it, voices echoing.
It was satisfying to recognize a lot of lines that I never knew came from “Macbeth,” including one that became the chorus of a song in one of the “Harry Potter” movies: “Something wicked this way comes.”
Also…”Is this a dagger I see before me?” “It is a tale told by an idiot, sound and fury, signifying nothing.” “Screw your courage to the sticking place.” Oh, there are some great lines in this play! In delivering the lines, the actors frequently spit, there is so much passion in their sharing of Shakespeare’s words.
I learned that “Out damned spot!” is something that Lady Macbeth says in anguish, trying unsuccessfully to wash away blood made permanent by guilt. Jennifer Johansen offers a layered portrayal of her.
Andrew Ahrens is a powerful Macbeth: a gorgeous, monstrous man who is paradoxically strong and weak.
Michael Shelton is chilling – the stuff of nightmares – as the murdered Banquo.
Handsome Frederick Marshall as Duncan struck me as a true leader. Both his kingly job and his chain mail vest fit him well. I was very sad when he died. (But Marshall also plays Porter, Seyton, and a Doctor, so at least Duncan’s death isn’t the end of Marshall’s presence on stage. Mind you, I didn’t realize it was one actor playing all of these parts until later, when I read my program.)
Handsome (yes, I know I am using the word more than once, but it’s that kind of cast!) Chris Hatch as Macduff also struck me as virtuous, although maybe I was just feeling sympathy for him losing his wife and children. At any rate, Hatch gives Macduff an admirable strength – both in terms of military prowess and human integrity.
Handsome David Stratton White gives Malcolm (Duncan’s son) a tentativeness that made me wonder how he will do as the next king. But surely he will be kinder and more honorable than Macbeth, so that’s something. Maybe the chain mail vest will come to fit him well over time.
Hotties Ben Tebbe and John Robert Armstrong play Lennox and Ross, two mercenaries…I mean, Scottish noblemen. Their bloodlust, their ease around violence, is disturbing.
Evan McCullough and Taylor Kleyn are the two under-18 actors in the show, but they both perform as skillfully and believably as adults. McCullough plays Donalbain (Duncan’s son) and a Young Soldier. Kleyn plays Fleance (Banquo’s son) and Young Macduff.
I have only two quibbles with this provocative show:
1. Sometimes the music overpowers the voices. However, I loved the chewiness of it anyway. I already mentioned the “oceanic” quality of the pre-show music. At other places in the show the music is throbbing and urgent. At still other places, it is funkier and more electric. In my notes I have “percussion” circled more than once.
2. At some point during the middle of the show I faded out for a few moments, because it seemed to be a lot of the same rushing in and out and killing. However, that, too, is just like a video game: you get so that you think you will never get to the next level of action…and then, suddenly, you do! And you’re engaged again. The same is true with this production of “Macbeth.”
Adam Noble is the fight choreographer. David Hochoy is the movement advisor. Richard J. Roberts is the dramaturg. Amy K. Denkmann is the stage manager.
After the show, Adrienne introduced me to Toni Bader and her daughter, who were sitting behind us. Bader has been an audio describer for the blind for ten years. She was making notes in preparation for making a recording that blind audience members can listen to as they listen to the show. It tells them what the set, costumes, and actors look like, and what else is happening on stage besides the words and the music.
Doesn’t Bader’s job sound interesting?! She promised me I could interview her some day for IndyTheatreHabit.com. Now I just have to find time in which to do it!
As I mentioned earlier, there was a Talk Back session with most of the cast after the show. Ben Tebbe (Lennox) led the discussion. I took a lot of notes – it was a fascinating conversation! – but I will just bundle and share here a few of the comments that I especially loved:
Someone asked the actors how they reconcile the language of Shakespeare in a modern adaptation.
Jennifer Johansen (Lady MacBeth) said, “We do Shakespeare because it’s relevant, not because it’s an artifact.”
Frederick Marshall (Duncan) said, “Actors live for the chance to do Shakespeare! We love the language. But also, doing a show at the IRT means rehearsing six days a week, eight hours a day, so we become immersed in Shakespeare. We’re just talking then, even though it’s poetry.”
Milicent Wright (a Witch) said, “Compare ‘our country sinks beneath the yoke’ with ‘things suck.’ There’s no comparison! But we’re a blend, too” (between modern and traditional images.) “For example, at the time when this play takes place, no one wore uniforms. Every guy just picked up his sword and went to fight. But it’s hard for a modern audience to identify with that, so we have uniforms. Also, if we did this play the traditional way, four of us on this stage (the four female actors) would not be allowed up here.”
Chris Hatch (Macduff) said, “These characters don’t know they’re speaking Shakespeare.” This comment made everyone laugh. But he added, “We strip away the reverence on a character level,” which made sense.
Andrew Ahrens (Macbeth) said, “There is a danger of putting too much air in Shakespeare.” This adaptation works well because it does not do that.
And finally, here is a story that Milicent Wright shared.
“Oh, no! Don’t tell that story!” said John Robert Armstrong (Ross) when she brought it up.
“I won’t name names,” Wright assured him. “One day during dress rehearsals a certain actor wearing his full military gear…”
“He wasn’t wearing his weapons!” Armstrong interrupted.
“Excuse me,” Wright said. “That person was not wearing his weapons, but he did go outside the theatre wearing his costume to get some fresh air during a break. There happened to be a big meeting of sheriffs across the street at the Hyatt Hotel. They were on a break, too.
“Suddenly that person realized that he was late going back from his break, so he ran inside. The sheriffs didn’t know he was an actor. They thought he was a real SWAT guy rushing in to handle an emergency. They all rushed over to see if he needed assistance!”
If that isn’t proof that the violence of “Macbeth” is still relevant in today’s world, I don’t know what is.
“Macbeth” is presented by the Indiana Repertory Theatre’s artistic director, Janet Allen, the IRT’s managing director, Steven Stolen, and Advantage Health Solutions. It runs on the IRT’s Upperstage through November 8, 2008. To make a reservation, please call the ticket office at 317-635-5252.
Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com