By Michael Tingley
Before me, a tire, laying on mossy turf. A couch, tilted backward, slashed underneath. A bathtub. And, most strikingly, a pond— or a puddle more exactly. Something like a cool forest pool that, amidst the flotsam, turns menacing. The puddle has a bridge of three planks thrown carelessly across it. The backdrop looks like an abandoned church or a revered prep school. As the first witch enters, texting on her iPhone and in full uniform, I guess it is the latter. This is a master set (by scenic designer Catherine Cornell), and what unfolds across it is a master adaptation of Macbeth by William Shakespeare.
Whenever I see an adaptation of a Shakespeare play, I ask myself one question immediately: Why here? Why did the director— in this case the exceptional, thought-wrenching Erica Schmidt— choose this dark forest and an all-female cast to play seven schoolgirls enacting the harrowing Scottish play? The answer turned out to be arguably more harrowing than the play itself. The concept is based on what is now infamously known as the “Slender Man Stabbing” and a separate tragedy, the murder of Skylar Neese. Both of these stabbings, perpetrated by teenage girls, share such childish motivations it frustrates, confuses, and chills. And this is what each actor at the Hunter Theater Project plays with.
Not enough can be said about the performers, especially of Ismenia Mendes as Lady Macbeth. This production presents the actors with a unique double-consciousness and each actor must give a multi-layered performance. Firstly, they must play the Shakespearean roles well; they must see the daggers before them and get out the damned spots. On the second layer, however, each actor plays a schoolgirl consciously playing Macbeth, or Macduff, or Banquo. To be clear, each is done with tremendous success. Often the audience laughed, not at the lines themselves, but at the actors’ naturalness when performing them. So many of the 400-year-old lines are presented to us with an ardent freshness.
The witches (Sharlene Cruz, Dylan Gelula, Sophie Kelly-Hedrick) terrified the audience with their teenage superficiality, wildness, and cruelty. As the play marches forward, the teenagers delight more and more, and finally too much, in their play-acting of Shakespeare. It is wonderful to watch how each actor— but especially the witches— handles the ascending excitement to its bloody crescendo.
The actor playing the teenage girl playing Macbeth (Brittany Bradford) pronounces her lines trippingly on the tongue. She and Lady Macbeth (Mendes) are masters of Shakespearean speech, finding little trails of nuances in their scenes together. Juxtaposed with their speechcraft, Banquo (Ayana Workman) excels in her physicality, writhing and contorting as the risen dead.
Here it must be said: If nothing else was good in the play, I would still recommend attending to see Ismenia Mendes’ “Out damned spot.” There are some monologues in Shakespeare that can make or break the production; this is one. Bent, gnarled over the puddle, Lady Macbeth washes and washes her hands, still asleep. It is a performance of heart-breaking earnestness, of maternal regret, or maybe just regret. It’s not to be missed.
This is a bloody play based on bloody events. Through juxtaposition, we bring things into discussion. Director Erica Schmidt understands this perfectly, for she found a cruelty with no reflection in Shakespeare: The cruelty of teenage girls. This is not said lightly; this adaptation is based on a real murder and an attempted murder perpetrated by two 12-year-old girls that left a third with 19 stab wounds. Yet, violence in Shakespeare is a masculine endeavor. To take just one famous example, Lady Macbeth wishes to be “unsexed,” as if the playwright did not believe that the feminine could perform murderous acts. Yet they can; they have. Transposing Macbeth into Mac Beth comments on both. It shocks, chills, jolts. As Akiva Fox, the Literary Manager and Dramaturg of the Shakespeare Theatre Company, writes, “Just as the real-world violence carried out by these modern girls jolted observers, so this projection jolts its audience by restoring the primal wildness to Shakespeare’s tragedy.”
Stage blood flung so far from the stage, I had a spot of it still on my hand as I wrote this review.
Photos: Ahron R. Foster
Directed by Erica Schmidt
Playing at the Frederick Loewe Theatre
Runtime: 90 minutes
Through February 22