By JK Clarke
William Shakespeare’s Macbeth has probably been subject to more attempts at modernization and/or alteration than any of his other works. Some versions, like Alan Cumming’s solo Macbeth on Broadway in 2013, were considered successful, but frequently these stagings—often made to attract newer, younger audiences—fall short of expectation. The latest entry into the modern Macbeth sweepstakes is Red Bull Theater’s production of the Seattle Repertory Theatre’s Mac Beth, now at the Lucille Lortel Theatre through June 9. An all-female production featuring just seven exciting young actors playing the approximately 30-40 characters (there are 43 in the original, but many roles and scenes have been edited out for brevity and clarity), this one really pops.
Avoiding the ethical lapse of altering Shakespeare itself, Mac Beth—under the able direction of Erica Schmidt—is actually a play wrapped around the story of Macbeth itself, a sort of play within a play. A group of schoolgirls come across the play and act out the story with some personal embellishments—though their own behavior may be even more devious than in the original. Echoes of the mythology surrounding the apocryphal Slender Man who supposedly threatens teens into to committing heinous crimes, renders this dark tale even darker. The story starts with adolescents in Harry Potter-esque capes and schoolgirl uniforms (costumes by Jessica Pabst) gathering to scheme—much like any group of malicious teens. But, they are also the weird sisters and (skipping ahead to Act I, Scene 3 of the original) the first Witch asks the others what they’ve been up to. Witch two says, “Killing swine,” (from the original) while Witch 3 augments, “An old man had a play in his lap.” She recounts that she took the play from him, saying, “I’ll do, I’ll do.” The play is presumably Macbeth, and so we’re off: the rest of the story mirrors most of the Bard’s original. There’s no pretense that this is an exact Macbeth, but rather a group of mischievous girls playing at it.
What sets Mac Beth apart most is not just the modernity, with the girls occupied with cell phone selfies and sucking on ring pops (candy in the shape of jewelry), but in the frenetic, high-energy pace. Where the original Macbeth rushes right into action (the King is murdered within a few scenes of the opening), but lags a bit in the second half, this production is a sprint from start to finish. And despite it being an independent, tongue-in-cheek, quasi-parody of of the original, it contains some of the finest representations of the classic characters I have seen. Ismenia Mendes’ Lady Macbeth is not only authentic as teen-cum-FifeWife, but delivers the original lines as well as, or better at times, than many Lady Ms. When shrieking “out damned spot” at her blood-stained hands, her panic is palpable; as is her passion for her husband and his soon to be obtained power. Never have I seen Lady Macbeth so passionate for Macbeth as Mendes.
The other women are equally scintillating, particularly up-and-comer Sophie Kelly-Hedrick, still an NYU Tisch student who originated her roles (Witch 2 and others) at Seattle Rep. Kelly-Hedrick, an actor to keep an eye on, has the knowing and cunning look of one not only delighting in her roles, but of maintaining a knowing power over her characters. The rest of the cast—Sharlene Cruz, Isabelle Fuhrman, Annasophia Robb (a television and film actor making her theater debut), Lily Santiago and Ayana Workman—all complete a super-energized ensemble who run, tumble (Lorenzo Pisoni, movement coordinator) and get willfully drenched in a surprisingly long on-stage rainstorm (Catherine Cornell’s set takes apparent neighborhood junk and clutter like discarded sofas and turns them functional). Jeff Croiter’s lighting and Erin Bednarz’s sound design complete the engaging mise en scène, making for a performance that doesn’t stop until Macbeth’s brutal death. More vicious than you’ve probably ever seen, and delightfully so.
It takes a moment at the curtain of Mac Beth to catch your breath, re-group and contemplate what you just saw. And that’s as it should be. The original play is brutal in its way and this salute to the play updates the pacing and shock value to match the times. What’s more, it’s a relatable entree into Shakespeare for young audiences who might not normally take an interest. Not to be missed by fans of Macbeth as well as those looking for a new way to connect to Shakespeare.
Mac Beth. Through June 9 at the Lucille Lortel Theatre (121 Christopher Street between Bleecker & Hudson Streets). 100 minutes, no intermission. www.redbulltheater.com
Photos: Carol Rosegg