is there any sense in reviewing a production that’s weeks away from closing and has been sold out for the entire run? perhaps not. it’s possible that you’ll book tickets to DC in hopes of acquiring one of the handful of standing room only tickets that go on sale an hour before each performance. if you’re a whimsical sort of person, i highly recommend it. if you’re already in the DC area and have no physical limitations that prohibit you from standing for a couple of hours, you need to go see this.
what am i talking about? the folger shakespeare library‘s adaptation of macbeth.
i first heard about this production many months ago. someone sent me (or maybe i just picked it off an RSS feed) a link to teller’s blog posts regarding the production. he promised “macbeth done right,” or in other words, a dark, creepy, bloody horror-fest full of magic and special effects that gives the darkest of shakespeare’s plays the proper treatment it deserves. i immediately sent the link to a friend who is living in DC for the year and said “you have to see this so that i know someone who has.” as luck would have it, we scheduled our trip to DC during the run, and gina managed to pick up the last two tickets seated together for the 5 days we were going to be in town.
i could spend an entire post raving about the theatre space. we had no idea we’d be walking into a 250-seat recreation of an elizabethan playhouse. we squee-ed like the fangirls we were and tried unsuccessfully to look as collected as the rest of the audience. sadly, i left my program in DC so i can’t give any of the designers or actors specific credit. they were all worthy of praise.
without any hyperbole or exaggeration i can safely say that i never need to see macbeth again. i’m not sure any other version could hope to live up to the standard set by this production. i’m also assuming that you know the story of macbeth, dear reader, and not worrying about spoiling key plot elements.
weird sisters aside, the costumes were all natural fabrics. woolen kilts and cable-knit sweaters with combat boots for the men and simple layers of shift dresses for the women gave the production a sense of timelessness, while also highlighting the play’s scottish roots. longer kilts and crisp white shirts served as “dress” uniforms for the more formal events. the families were subtly divided by color schemes, the wealthy from the poor by the quality and cut of the fabric as well as hair style. even the swords they carried seemed designed for each character. the sisters combined all of these elements, and along with stained and blooded wedding-dress tulle and grotesque halloween masks were hands-down the creepiest, weirdest witches i’ve seen. as characters grew weaker or stronger, subtle costume changes match their moods. after the massacre of his wife and children, the amiable macduff uses a red scrap of fabric to tie back his hair and is transformed into another version of himself.
with tricks of light and sound, a single set stood for interior and exterior shots with only the barest of set pieces. two caged percussionists provided an aural backdrop that was half soundtrack and half special effects. A chair here, a mirror there, the sound of wind through a haunted forest, the beat of a drum as soldiers marched up the hill. those were the clues you received and they were all you needed. there was never any doubt where you were, even as one scene transitioned the next. layered with all of these elements were the special effects. there were swordfights, foggy forests, a cauldron bubbling, disappearing and reappearing witches and ghosts, severed heads in baskets, copious amounts of stage blood, and even a broken arm complete with a sickening crack. while your average “penn & teller” show would use these elements for melodramatic effect, this production was never over the top, even at it’s bloodiest.
and then there were the actors. although the entire cast was top-notch, macbeth, lady macbeth, and one of the men who played multiple roles deserve special mention. of the entire cast, their moments are the ones that are still with me. lady macbeth’s infamous “out damned spot” scene, as the phantom blood slowly becomes real to the audience, gave me chills. the way that macbeth rubbed and plucked at his scalp as he descended into paranoia and madness was seamlessly integrated into his character. the ensemble player was as equally comfortable playing the hilariously drunk porter, fantastical weird “sister”, or the doctor that observes lady macbeth’s madness. his turn as one of the murders, rubbing a sword against the belly of the pregnant lady macduff as he hums a lullaby, was the creepiest moment of the entire show.
before you think i’ve been completely blinded, it was not all perfection. some of the bloodwork, especially the palmed, empty sacks could have been a bit more subtle. they were actors, however, and not professional magicians. some actors chose a subtle scottish accent, but not all, and few of the ones that did were consistent enough for my taste. while i think the use of child actors was effective, especially in the case of macduff’s young son, they were often not up to the caliber of their grown counter parts. some actors played multiple parts, which was distracting, except for the ones who played the weird sisters. speaking of, i would have preferred the sisters in makeup and prosthetics instead of the rubber halloween masks, but i recognize the necessity of the masks for quick costume changes. it just would have been nice to see their faces contort along with their bodies.
my biggest complaint, really, is that it likely won’t be filmed, so that you’ll never get to see it, and i’ll never get to see it again.