NEW YORK — As a play that has been performed for over 400 years, what can a director do to make what is coined, “the Scottish play,” still compelling to audiences and keep them coming back? That is precisely the question that great directors such as John Doyle work to answer with this latest production of Macbeth at Classic Stage Company in the lower east side of Manhattan.
Classic Stage is a rather unassuming playhouse behind a coffee shop on East 13th Street, yet the setup served as an excellent backdrop for one of the great Shakespearean classics that seems to be even more important in our current age of power-seeking and the narcissism that can come with that. Doyle’s direction to this group of actors was impressive in that nature, and the reminder of the timeliness of a piece of art from centuries previous was not lost on me.
An interesting choice on the outset of this production was to have the lines of the three witches spoken in perfect harmony by the entirety of the cast sans Macbeth. This gave the famous lines of “toil and trouble” such a haunting feel throughout the show, that each time the witches spoke and prophecies were made, an icy chill was felt throughout the playhouse.
Famed actress Mary Beth Piel played Duncan, the King of Scotland and the first to fall victim to the plots of Macbeth and his wife’s rise to power. Piel has a great air of wisdom within her face and eyes, and even the way she carries herself shows the style of an actress that can command an audience. Throughout the production, Piel’s mere presence seemed to serve as a reminder that the choices Macbeth had made would be his downfall. Piel also would hum a melancholy tune when walking during certain scenes, and this humming combined with the sound design by Matt Stine and associate designer AJ Suraskky-ysasi created an atmospheric element that I found myself closing my eyes to just get lost in the elements.
Corey Stohl as Macbeth was impeccable at portraying what can happen to someone who gets lost down the path of arrogance and fear. Macbeth’s inability to recognize his vulnerability led to some very impressive scenes, especially near the climax at the show with Young Siward played so well by Antionio Michael Woodward and of course the epic scenes between Macbeth and Macduff, played by Brazin Akhavan.
One of the main highlights though, was Lady Macbeth, played exquisitely by Nadia Bowers. In Shakespeare, the language flows like music, and Bowers’s voice has a quality that at moments feels almost like a perfect mixture of warm butter and sugar melted on a pastry and at others feels as though it could take over an army. Even still, listening to Lady Macbeth’s famed speech when she bemoans the evil deeds of her and her husband, the choices made with the power of Bowers’s voice were absolute magic.
The set design by David L. Arsenault was minimal, which I appreciated. A large set was not necessary and would have been cumbersome. There was a simple throne, a table upon the second floor of the stage, and good directorial choices of the space.
My one confusion with the creative design, which I fully admit may be just me missing the mark of understanding here, was that of costume design by Ann Hould-Ward and associate designer Amy Price. Costumes were simple, plain clothing, with most cast members also having a plaid blanket draped around them at times. While not at all distracting from the play, I feel as if there was likely a connection that I somehow did not connect.
The intimate size of the theatre and the impressive talent of the cast made this production of Macbeth one of the highlights of my New York trip. I’m interested to see more from Classic Stage and would encourage any theater traveler going to New York to consider stepping away from the crowd of Broadway and getting a stellar performance just a few blocks south.