Macbeth, Shakespeare Theatre Company

At Sidney Harman Hall, John Coyne's expansive set reaches deep and wide across the open proscenium stage for Liesl Tommy's production of Macbeth, and audiences can immediately see that  the concrete walls along the upstage wall are riven with an epic crack.  The crack doesn't gesture towards incipient structural collapse, however, because it has been filled in with gold.  Unlike the way in which the Japanese art form of kintsugi uses gold to repair cracked pottery (which uses that repair as a means of celebrating the imperfections wrought by time or mischance and creating something beautiful at the same time), Coyne's gilded break in the wall feels more dangerous, the gold filling the crack imperfectly, as though hoping that the flash and sparkle might keep you from realizing that the foundations are no longer stable or secure.  Here, the gold is beautiful, but can't fully convince you that the building won't collapse at any moment.

Photo of the cast of Macbeth by Scott Suchman.

Tommy's production is fascinated by that element of disarray and chaos that lurks underneath power and all the glamor that comes with it, but of equal important in her vision is the instigators and fomenters of that chaos.  Tommy puts that onus squarely on the witches and uses them to underscore her entire production's bent.  The wilds of Scotland are traded here for an unspecified region in North Africa, and the witches are American operatives come to manipulate events to their own ends with little regard for the human lives that are torn asunder by their actions.  When one of the witches bloodies his own face and steps into the scene as the sergeant who first sings the praises of Macbeth to Duncan, we can see that Tommy has no desire to let her Macbeth wallow in ambiguity of vision.  It's a pointed, unmistakable move, and throughout the evening, we see the ways in which American money and power are circulating throughout this particular war-torn Scotland and adding to the chaos and instability.

At times, that chaos can wash over the stage and leave the audience wondering exactly what they've signed on for.  When Banquo pulls out a soprano saxophone and kicks off a sequence of music, dance, and all hands on deck pageantry, more than a few eyebrows started shooting up around me.  But when Nikkole Salter swept onstage making her first entrance as the new queen of Scotland, spontaneous cheers broke out to echo the ones onstage.  From skepticism to YAS KWEEN in under thirty seconds- it's a hell of a moment of theatre.  As Macbeth, Jesse J. Perez is an actor familiar to STC audiences. but more often in comedic roles, from his turns in Mary Zimmerman-helmed productions like Argonautika and Candide to commedia-inspired The Servant of Two Masters.  As Macbeth, Perez gives an intensely human performance, balancing the power and effectiveness that brought him this far on his own with fear and unsettled discontent propelling him towards his downfall.  This is a power couple that is struggling to stay on the same page as their lives begin to reshape, and Salter and Perez make fine work of their rise and fall from power.

Photo of Jesse J. Perez as Macbeth and Nikkole Salter as Lade Macbeth in Macbeth by Scott Suchman.

Other standouts include Marcus Naylor as Macduff, who grabs the stage and every heart in the house when he learns how Macbeth revenged himself upon his family, and Myra Lucretia Taylor who plays both the Porter and the Doctor. Taylor's turn as the drunken porter reminds us just how badly we need a comic release by this point in the proceedings, and she instantly has the audience in the palm of her hand.  Indeed, Tommy's casting allows several women to take on parts traditionally played by men, from Petronia Paley's Duncan to Sophia Ramos' Ross, who each play these parts as women, and demonstrate that just because you work in early modern theatre, there's no good reason not to find more opportunities for gender parity.  Having women in these roles, playing the characters as women, builds a richer world for the audience to consider, and I was delighted to see this element of the production play out over the evening.

Tommy's production of Macbeth isn't subtle, but it doesn't want to be.  Instead, Tommy wants us to look frankly at our own unsavory tendencies as human beings and as a nation, and she wants us to do so here in DC at this moment in time.  Sometimes it can seem heavy-handed and the production feels no qualms about leaning into the violence of war, vengeance, and murder, but Shakespeare's play gives us all of these right in the text.  Macbeth was never meant to be a comedy or a feel-good fun time.  As soon as Macbeth gets the push from the witches, death and destruction are inevitable, and with all the same factors still in play even after the Macbeths are gone, what change can be hoped for?  Once the wall is cracked so deeply, no amount of gilding can really make you forget that your foundation is forever changed and can never be quite stable again. Liesl Tommy is a director to watch, and her Macbeth is a match made in--well, if not heaven, certainly made right here in DC.


Popular Posts