The strongest things in the Shadow Theatre Company's ambitious production of Macbeth are Jeffrey Nickelson's performance in the title role and the way director Buddy Butler deals with the supernatural elements.
Macbeth's witches always present a problem. They're sometimes portrayed as wrinkled hags and sometimes as beautiful young women; sometimes they're created by sound and lighting effects. In Throne of Blood, his brilliant movie version of the play, Akira Kurosawa gave us a single malignant, eerily still figure. The witches in the Shadow Theatre production, however, are very much flesh-and-blood. Covered with cobwebby rags, they writhe, giggle, rage, hiss like snakes, mew and paw like kittens. Hecate, their mistress, is downplayed or eliminated in most productions, but here she takes on a central role as a sensual seductress who delights in human misery and soothes or punishes her three witch minions at will. It's Hecate who begins the play, speaking the words with which Lady Macbeth will later urge her husband on to murder, and it's she who ends it.
Macbeth is a study of evil. At first reluctant to give in to his ugly ambitions, Macbeth eventually submits to his wife and murders Duncan, King of Scotland, usurping his throne. He soon becomes hardened and takes on bloodier and bloodier actions as he schemes to conceal his crime and consolidate his power, ultimately murdering the wife and children of his rival, Macduff. Nickelson brings power and emotion to the role.
Nothing else in this production, however, seems as fully fleshed out and thought through as the witch scenes. There are all kinds of little glitches: Actors step on each other's lines; a servant casually picks up a sword by the blade; some of the murders are unconvincing; Lady Macbeth sleepwalks in high heels. I'd quarrel with some of the conceptual decisions, too. When Lady Macbeth gives her bone-chilling monologue invoking the forces of darkness -- "unsex me here/And fill me, from the crown to the toe, top-full/Of direst cruelty! Make thick my blood" -- it's appropriate for Hecate and the witches to sidle on. But when they then proceed to wrap her in red and black scarves and twirl her around, it feels flat-footedly literal. Butler uses a similar device when Macbeth is on his way to kill Banquo and thinks he sees a dagger in front of him: Hecate appears, teasingly holding the dagger out and withdrawing it, waving it around and practically parting Macbeth's hair with it. In both cases, the witches' antics were so distracting that I didn't hear a word of the monologues.
Speech was a problem in general. Some of the performers garbled or swallowed their words or turned away from us as they spoke them, and these defects were accentuated by the auditorium's poor acoustics.
Aside from Nickelson, Aisha "Kamaria" King as Hecate and the three women playing the witches -- Shelley McMillion Burl, Sasha Zeilig and Lindsey Calvert -- the strongest performances were in smaller roles. They came from Damion Hoover as Malcolm (though I found his breast-baring costume in the pre-battle scene hugely distracting); Adrienne Martin Fullwood, who gave Lady Macduff an appealing warmth; and Michael R. Duran as Macduff. His reaction to the murder of his wife and children was genuinely moving. Dwayne Carrington is a talented and expressive actor, but he tended to overact as Banquo. Though she had some good moments, Jada Roberts lacked conviction as Lady Macbeth.
This is a production that calls out for more meticulous attention to detail. In particular, it's wise to trust Shakespeare's language. No matter how thrillingly evil your witchy, serpentine sisters may be, the true horror of Macbeth lies in its words.
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