At the Chicago Shakespeare Theater (Yard)
By Dan Zeff
Chicago – Most of the pre opening publicity surrounding the Chicago Shakespeare Theater revival of “Macbeth” focused on the employment of Teller of the famous Penn and Teller magic team as a co-director and adaptor. Teller joins playwright Aaron Posner, his collaborator on a CST production of “The Tempest” that was a big box office hit for the theater in 2015.
The expectation was that Teller and Posner would create a special vision of “Macbeth” that exploited the tragedy’s supernatural and magical opportunities. After all, this was the show that featured three spooky witches and the ghost of the murdered Banquo materializing at a feast honoring Macbeth. Purists may or may not approve the modern magic emendations, but the production aims at accessibility and a fresh eye, and viewing the classic with a fresh eye and ear, a “Macbeth” for the people in the 21st century.
Posner and Teller do leave their mark on the production. The comic entrance of the drunken porter immediately following the horrific offstage murder of Duncan turns into a scene of give and take between the raucous porter and the startled but accommodating audience. The play opens with Lady Macbeth silently grieving at he casket of her dead baby, an insert not specifically called for in the script but a bold stroke that is a signpost to the woman’s growing mental disturbance that leads to her death (a suicide in this production).
So the production does offer original inputs, but traditionalists need not fear. This is a staging that delivers a clearly presented “Macbeth,” well spoken and well cast, and easy to follow. This is solid Shakespeare, tweaked to be sure, but still delivering the play the Bard wrote.
The CST staging did elicit more laughs and giggles than any “Macbeth” I’ve seen, some of the humor emerging organically from the script and some volunteered from spectators who decided a lot of what they were seeing was funny. As a result, except for a few intense moments, this was not a horror thriller. It saves near all its chills for late in the action when Macbeth’s blood lust runs amok.
The title character is played by Ian Merrill Peakes, an actor with a long list of national credits in both modern and classical theater. Peakes has an imposing stage presence. He looks like a warrior but his performance is garnished with nervous tics that suggest a man living on his nerve ends and not an implacable villain. When he expresses regret at killing Duncan immediately after the murder, his regret sounds sincere. His Macbeth was not a born villain but a man who let his ambition, stoked by his wife, overwhelm what had been good about his character.
Chaon Cross is a beautiful and youthful Lady Macbeth, at her best in highly emotional scenes. Her sleepwalking monologue, her body increasingly covered in blood, is powerful and credible. It’s a shame the play script that survives writes Lady Macbeth out of the play halfway through the action, except for the sleepwalking scene. She is a more complex character than her husband (the sexual compatibility between the couple was palpable, to say the least) and she was missed as the plot descended into savagery down the stretch.
The production plays the three witches (or “Weird sisters”) as creepy grotesques. They hover in the background throughout the play, silently watching the tragedy develop. McKinley Carter, Theo Germaine, and Emily Ann Nichelson look like they stepped out of a creature features film and they achieve a the coup de theatre that ends the play on a scary note.
The CST production employs a large cast, several of the performers doubling in roles. There is excellence everywhere, with a particularly impressive performance by Timothy D. Stickney as Macduff. His reaction to the news that Macbeth had murdered his wife and two children was a heartbreaking blend of anger, disbelief, and grief. Adam Wesley Brown is a youthful but commanding Malcolm. Edgar Miguel Sanchez and Samuel Taylor give the background characters of Lennox and Ross real dramatic (and sometimes humorous) heft. There is also good work from Jennifer Latimore as Lady Macduff, Christopher Donahue in the dual roles of Duncan and the doctor, and Andrew White as Banquo. Of course, a huge shout out goes to Matthew Floyd Miller who leads the audience so merrily through the porter scene.
The production is staged in the new Yard theater, a supple acting space that for this show was expanded into an Elizabethan-tinged proscenium stage that seemed almost as large as the Courtyard main stage. Daniel Conway has designed a bi-level set with a spiral staircase connecting the balcony with the main stage. Perched atop the action is Kenny Wollesen distributing atmospheric and dramatic percussion accompaniment that melds with Thom Weaver’s lighting design and Andrew Pluess’s sound plan.
Mara Blumenfeld’s costumes appropriately suggest the medieval Scottish environment. The costumes are general bland in color except when Chaon Cross emerges wearing stunning crimson gowns. Matt Hawkins creditably handles the sword fights and battle scenes as fight choreography. The battle scenes were comparatively low keyed but the on-stage violent deaths still added up to an impressive number.
The CST “Macbeth” isn’t a circus-flavored concept from the fertile theatrical minds of Aaron Posner and Teller, which may relieve some patrons and disappoint others. Spectators familiar with the play will find new and stimulating ideas flavoring the production, but the co-creators don’t fly off in an ego-tripping orgy of innovation. The play remains intact as a legitimate Shakespeare experience, filled with strong performances enhanced by vivid visual and aural design contributions.
“Macbeth” is one of Shakespeare’s shortest plays, suggesting that some of the original script didn’t survive. The Bard likely would have given more stage time to Lady Macbeth and fleshed out Macbeth’s emotional arc from brave warrior to bloodthirsty monster. What remains is a collection of potent individual scenes and some of Shakespeare’s greatest poetry, presented with intelligence and flare by the CST. And a gold star goes to the new Yard venue, a comfortable, flexible theater destined for great things in upcoming seasons.
“Macbeth” runs through June 24 at the CST Yard Theater on Navy Pier. Most performances are Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday at 1 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday at 3 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 and 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $48 to $88. Call 312 595 5600 or visit www.chicagoshakes.com.
The show gets a rating of
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