SALT LAKE CITY — Autumn is a time for perennial “spooky season” staples filled with the stuff of nightmares. The University of Utah Theatre Department has wholeheartedly embraced this tradition by opening their tandem seasons in the Babcock and Studio 115 theatres with Frank Wildhorn‘s Dracula the Musical and Shakespeare‘s Macbeth. Like any proper college production, this production strives to “re-imagine” a classic text and fight against established tropes and clichés that make so many productions of Shakespeare’s works trite and unwatchable. It was a valiant attempt.
Guest director Wendy Franz, the managing director of the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, sets the play in the dystopian ruins of an American town some twenty years after whatever caused the collapse of society. According to the dramaturg’s note by Anna Coltrin, “the world looks like a dilapidated train station, with people who can only survive using objects they’ve found while roaming the streets.” The set design by Samuel Dalton evokes this with the remnants of walls and platforms of a crumbling train station, but the incongruities also begin here with a version of the Metro map lines painted on the floor. Dalton populates the stage with strategic “found” objects that help transform the stage to the many interior and exterior locations with the help of Meghan Gibson‘s lighting design, which was appropriately moody and succeded in targeting key moments in a difficult to light space.
Another rarely-tried aspect of the production is that Macbeth is played as a woman. Morgan Werder begins their portrayal in the thick of battle, and it is clear that they are dominant and will refuse to give an inch until their goal is met. This is what a good Macbeth should be. Unfortunately, Werder has to fight not only the battles on stage but also a clunky cutting of the script that changes a lot of pronouns from masculine to feminine, but inconsistently so and with no clear purpose other than to remind the audience that Macbeth is a woman. For example, the pronouns are changed in reference to Macbeth, but when she becomes the monarch, “she” is still a king. Let me be clear, I have no issue with gender-bending Shakespeare. Werder works hard, has mastered the lines, and is a captivating performer, but the cutting has put unclear expectations on the role they should take. Is this Macbeth living entirely in a man’s role? Is she androgynous? Is she unapologettically female and rewriting all the rules? So much of Lady Macbeth’s manipulation attacks Macbeth’s standing, virility, strength, and ambition that not being clear about the role harms the portrayal of the relationship between the Macbeths as well as their motives moving through the play. Seleh McKenna as Lady Macbeth is appropriately connivng, but she loses steam in the second half of the play and the chemistry between McKenna and Werder is forced at best and nonexistent at worst.
So much of the text seems crammed inside the concept, to hell with the context. If these are truly the last of the population after an incident that destroyed society, why is there a monarchical hierarchy that relies on honor and obedience, rather than abject fear and brutal control of a leader? If, as the dramaturgical note states, this is a world where all of the electronic conveniences we take for granted have not been manufactured for decades, why are there working battery operated flashlights? Why are their swords? Why do all their boots match? Why are aviator goggles synonymous with the apocalypse? Why are the people all so clean? I asked myself these questions and a dozen more while watching the play. My ever-patient husband made the comment at intermission that if he had not known the story, he would be incredibly confused.
The many inconsistencies with the cutting, the concept, the costumes (by Mae Hinton-Ward), and the doubling of the cast unfortunately detracted from the obvious care and work of the student team. College productions are often experimental, which means they are meant to be bold and challenge existing “rules” about how a piece can and should be done. An experimental play should be unapologetic and fearless. Macbeth is a play that needs to be immediate and full of the tension of distrust and the impulsiveness of paranoia. This production seemed to rush over the most known lines almost to avoid them and then slog through scenes that could have used a trim. And while the cast was performing with their hearts, much of the staging was pedestrian and the direction inconsistent.
The biggest disappointment was the treatment of the witches. They were cut down significantly and never really given much attention. Again, in what appeared to be an effort to skip over more famous lines, some scenes were spoken so quickly that important plot points were glossed over. However, there were members of the ensemble that matched Werder’s intensity and strove to make the concept work. Kiera Stogin’s Banquo matched Macbeth in every scene and brought needed strength to the stage. Emily Smiley was vastly underutilized but shone as the doctor in Act 5, and Sarah Nass was fantastic as the porter, making an often over-the-top scene as clear and as saucy as possible. Lastly, Werder’s final moments at the end of their final battle were novel and heartbreaking. It was a choice I had not seen in this play before, and I wish there had been more room for those choices in with the rubble and the blood.
Please Note: this production contains simulated violence and the use of strobe and fog effects.