Review: MACBETH at Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Review: MACBETH at Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Pictured (l-r): Theo Germaine, Chaon Cross, McKinley Carter, and Emily Ann Nichelson. Photo by Liz Lauren. 

By Tonika Todorova

“Double, double, toil and trouble”, many macabre misgivings brew in this cauldron bubble, currently on wildfire at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. A production so dark and creepy it earns its mythological stigma, that of pronouncing its name inside the confines of the theatre.

M. The Original GoT. This production feels so cinematic, you’d swear directors and adapters Aaron Posner and Teller ripped a page from the book of your favorite HBO hit. And since this production uses modern features to create this fantastical medieval world, I’m going to take the liberties of connecting a few film references in hopes of painting a picture for you of the most exciting Shakespeare I have ever witnessed. I only mention these, because if any of you had convinced yourself Shakespeare was outdated—if you ever chose a night in with Netflix over a live performance—you might miss something like this. A production so spellbinding that even knowing how the story ends, you sit at the edge of your seat expecting the predictable with eyes wide open. A magical feast that doesn’t shy from employing the gauntlet of stagecraft from traditional elements to technological advances: audio amplification and modification, time freezes that serve as asides to the audience, live tribal percussion (the artistry and skill of Kenny Wollesen, Andre Pluess and Ronnie Malley), projected hallucinations, masterfully choreographed fight sequences, dynamic en pointe lighting (Thom Weaver’s sharp design), a gorgeous multi-level set accented by fog and a lookingglass—yes, literally, smoke and mirrors—(blame the best of Daniel Conway), harmonized chanting, good ol’ physical movement—and telling you all this won’t even take away from the illusion. It’s the rhythm of it all coming together that is worth the experience.

But, first, a closer look at the MacBs: making up your mind about whether or not these people are victims or villains. Are they governed by the fear of pain or the love for power? There seems to be some mixture of both throughout the play, which is why the characters suffer a bit of a contradiction: sociopathy doesn’t hold room for empathy and the Bard doesn’t provide much time or text to suffice for transitions from pain to rage for his characters. Lady M asks the witches for strength in her cruelty, but I miss the impetus for her consciousness to begin torturing her. Did the witches somehow take their cursed gift back? And what of the seemingly guilt-ridden newly crowned king? We are introduced to him as a valiant soldier and good friend to Banquo, but I am not quite convinced how or why he suddenly becomes so treacherous. Or how he manages to oscillate between remorse and heartlessness. Is this the doing of dark magic as well? Or is it his relationship with his wife? If so, I miss seeing them get off on the addiction to power. It’s hinted when we first see them together, that these two most likely share some cosmic orgasms together, but perhaps part of convincing us that the MacBs are bound in the ambition for power is convincing us of their extraordinary flesh experience. As in, I bet they enjoy the kind of intense kink you wouldn’t tell your friends about. Their relationship requires a bit more of a build-up of this unquenchable thirst; seeing them speaking about their murderous plans in a form of foreplay; seeing them enjoy one another in the rewards and spoils of their victories; seeing them open the doors to their celebration party, knowing they were just down in their dungeon, stifling screams of ecstasy in erotic asphyxiation.

But even so, there is definitely a lean in power toward Lady M. The costume choices (lovely work by Mara Blumenfeld) support this idea as the queen is often displayed with bare shoulders and arms—the powerful physique and demanding presence of Chaon Cross. And the king hiding his aging masculinity in royal garb—the sullen Ian Merrill Peakes whose portrayal of a man whose realization he’s been had leaves you both pleased and saddened.

But all in all, MacB, thou art a villain, for what did Duncan (Christopher Donahue portraying the gentle king as a nurturing Dumbledore) ever do to you except love you and promote you? And what about your friend Banquo? What fault does he and his son have for being cursed to continue the royal line? Although, Banquo’s suspicion (a grounded performance by Andrew White) could have used a bit more paranoia—why promise the king with such joy that you will return for his banquet and then walk through the forest in the middle of the night with your adolescent son knowing you could be next?

Here, I must interject with some words about the Porter. Matthew Floyd Miller deserves a whole paragraph all to himself praising his comedic timing and for providing a much-required respite from the tension building in the rafters. Traditionally, the Porter has been used as a tool to reset the acceleration of events, but ne’er have I seen one that, through tongue-and-cheek audience interaction, manages to invite us inside the abode of the Thane of Cawdor, baiting us into believing that the morning only brings echoes of last night’s mirth.

But let’s leave the humans aside for a moment and turn our attention to the Weird Sisters. Portrayed by actors/singers McKinley Carter, Theo Germaine and Emily Ann Nichelson, this trio reminds me more of a tricephalic snake with their in-unison tilts of their gaze and swift slithering movements. But what sends the most chills down your spine is their haunting harmonizations. In partnership with the live percussion, the soundscape of this production seals the cinematic effect, and the Yard transforms into a forbidden forest, our reality manifests into the mystical, our senses are held hostage to the whims of the fantastical.

And that is only the first half! At intermission, the bartenders are in the weeds as most people return to their seats with drinks in hand. The need for a potion to survive the second half is grave. Luckily, the directors don’t gut us with Macduff’s children. They could have, easily, but they save the catharsis for when we have to experience it through Macduff, when he has to “feel it like a man,” and Timothy D. Stickney allows himself and the audience to do precisely that before Shakespeare has him putting his grief aside to go do some revenging. It is the only moment in the production that moves you. Things quickly escalate from there. Too quickly, actually. Lady M takes her own life, but it isn’t explained how. Did the doctor find pity upon her and slip her some pills for her ails, attempting to “cure her” as the king demanded? The blood on Seyton’s hand would suggest that maybe she used the daggers that took Duncan’s life to end hers. But, alas, the Bard doesn’t bother with her death too much, and the affair takes place off-stage. For a character that seems to be the anchor of resolution, she falls apart quickly and we are robbed of seeing her actual demise. And as news of her end comes to the King, a tinge of betrayal more present than grief as he, too, isn’t given an opportunity to be affected for our viewing pleasure. His end comes swiftly and with his sword not raised. It is suggested that it is perhaps even welcomed. But a blackout cuts the experience short. We invest two hours in watching this medieval Bonnie and Clyde self-destructing in a sociopathic rampage; we could really do with seeing their faces at the end of their reign. Comeuppance is effective when it’s on full display. All that useless malarkey after the death of the murderous couple is unnecessary. This particular telling of the tale stands stronger without all the mouths a-gab and agape by the humans. The haunting swelling yowls of the Weird Sisters would have been a great underscore for the climax. The dark coming to claim its own. Sorry Malcolm, but I have no idea why Shakespeare even dragged you into this. Or maybe it was Thomas Middleton. Or whoever is rumored to have contributed to the writing of this play.

Some minor script issues aside, this production is spooky and well worth it. I guess if you’re going to execute it so spectacularly, your name must be Chicago Shakespeare Theater. I was a little thrown off by the giant promo banner that credited the directors and subsequently parenthesizing magic genius Teller with “of Pen and Teller.” Surely, the magic (major contributions by Johny Thompson) is awe-inspiring enough to not be in need of clout. But I plan to return and see this play at the end of its run, to see how much more fiercely the spell can be cast, the more this wicked incantation is repeated, the more real this illusion seems, the darker this Macbeth grows. Damn. Turn around three times. Spit behind your back. Can someone kindly allow me back inside?

MACBETH runs through June 24th. For more information visit chicagoshakes.com.

About author

Tonika Todorova

Tonika Todorova is an adventure architect and a passionate lover of the shared human experience.

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