CEDAR HILLS — I have seen Macbeth on stage so many times that I have lost count, but I have never seen a Macbeth like the current production at the Creekside Theatre Festival.
Director Ben Henderson has carefully adjusted the script to create an altered Macbeth that is both old and new at the same time. Scenes are combined so that they happen simultaneously on different parts of the stage, most notably Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking and Macbeth’s dismissal of reports of an advancing army. Henderson also altered the staging of some of the murders in order to increase Macbeth’s guilt (such as when he watches on stage as Banquo is murdered). Most memorable, though, was Henderson’s decision to expand the number of witches and to have them as part of the staging in much of the play. Henderson’s witches are not merely crones living on the heath, but are powerful spirits who can influence events to ensure that their prophecies are fulfilled. Henderson’s changes are not those of a director in love with his concept or who thinks that he knows better than Shakespeare. Rather, Henderson trusts Shakespeare’s text and merely makes changes to find new ways to present the meaning and emotion of the play to the audience.
My biggest qualm is with Henderson’s decision to create pantomimed scenes that padded out the running time by at least 10 minutes without adding depth to the characters. Most egregious was the entrance for the porter (played by Chris Hults), which was an agonizingly long attempt at laughs with a jaunty rendition of Scott Joplin‘s, “The Entertainer,” as underscore. The audience emitted a few feeble chuckles, but mostly just stared in stony silence at Hults, waiting for the plot to resume. Thankfully, these scenes are absent from the second half of the play. I also wish that the sword fights in the final battle had been more vigorous; currently they are not exciting enough to support the climax of the play.
M. Chase Grant is a forceful Macbeth whose descent into evil is much more willful than usually seen on stage. With Henderson’s altered staging, Macbeth fantasizes about killing Duncan instead of being compelled to murder by his wife. The result is a Macbeth who follows his natural proclivities (albeit, influenced by the witches) instead of a Macbeth who is pushed into evil. This choice aligns Shakespeare’s tragedy with the Aristotelian view of tragedy where a character’s downfall is the product of their personality flaws. While that staging choice theoretically interesting (or maybe not), it humanizes Macbeth and makes his evil deeds a choice and not consequence of supernatural events and a domineering wife. Grant is also superb at showing Macbeth’s change into a broken man, such as during his despair after encountering Banquo’s ghost or when he panics after murdering Duncan and fears he may be caught.
Shaunna Thompson had me convinced that she was perfect for the role of Lady Macbeth from her first monologue. The decisiveness of the words and the almost joy that Lady Macbeth exudes as she commits freely to evil is fascinating and disturbing. In later scenes, Thompson gives the character poise and self-assuredness that makes me believe unquestioningly that Lady Macbeth wants to reach the pinnacle of power. Finally, Thompson’s powerful, yet vulnerable voice makes the sleepwalking scene particularly engrossing.
Other cast members are commendable in their commitment to Henderson’s vision. The witches ensemble have a strange yet ethereal quality to them. Their fluid physicality makes them distinct from the other characters on stage, and the way one witch exits the stage near the end of the play—by walking upstream through the creek at the front of the stage, impervious to the water or the cold—is a subtle touch of eerieness. Carlos Posas as Banquo is passionate, and when Banquo returns as a ghost after his murder, the character embodies anger towards his murderer. Anton Moss is also a standout as Malcolm, King Duncan’s son and heir to the Scottish throne. Moss handles the talky scene in Act IV well and is engrossing as a prince who feels compelled to act to free his country from evil.
However, some actors fail to live up to the standards set by their castmates. Hults’s King Duncan is bland and fails to show any hints of authority or stateliness. I also find Jakob Tice‘s performance as Macduff disappointing, especially in Act IV when Macduff learns his family is murdered. The reactions lack emotion, and Macduff seems mildly disappointed in the news, not furious enough to join the rebellion against Macbeth. Other ensemble members seem stiff, and the variability in performances is a sharp reminder that Creekside Theatre Fest as a company is still maturing.
Another reminder is the technical elements, which show a similar level of variability. The costumes (designed by Jess Nielsen) are an interesting mix of modern clothing: kilts (for men), stylized dresses, and Renaissance pieces. The result is a unified vision of the look of the play that is not grounded in any particular time period. One of my favorite costumes is Lady Macbeth’s blue bodice, leggings, and sheer cape, which brings a touch of luxury to the character after she becomes a queen. Another standout is Moss’s modern black slacks smartly paired with a light doublet that laces in the back. On the other hand, the lighting design (designed by Jordan Long and Henderson) does little to add to the play. Creekside performs their shows outdoors, and their lights are limited to a few portable lighting trees that do not offer enough flexibility to do much more than provide basic illumination for the scenes. Most attempts at artiness in the lighting are failures, such as the blackout during the “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” soliloquy.
Theatre-goers who think that they have seen all Macbeth has to offer should consider Creekside’s production. The strong leads, the innovative staging, and the live cinematic underscoring (by Maren Hansen and Zach Hansen) make the production a worthwhile use of time. Even Hecate makes an appearance! (The character is played by Nicole Allen in scenes that are usually cut from performance, because it was probably written by Thomas Middleton). But there is also plenty in Creekside’s Macbeth that Shakespeare newcomers can appreciate.