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carlson-aldridge-macbeth.jpgIn the past twelve months, I’ve seen a lot of takes on the Scottish Play. There was Greasy Joan & Co.’s Macbeth set in a minimalist, frigid Putinesque Russia-like country in the spring. Then there was The Living Canvass’ Unsex Me Here, which was a unique pastiche of naked actors, a “greatest hits” collection of the play’s dramatic speeches, and train-stopping, eye-catching video projections in the summer. Then, in the late fall, at the Court Theater, there was Anne Bogart and the SITI Company’s Radio Macbeth, a version of the play set in an abandoned warehouse during the 1940s with sound design as the key differentiating element. Plus, of course there’s the real-life telenovela that is Illinois politics, much stranger and resonant than any stage production could be, but let’s not even go there. So I was curious to see what director Barbara Gaines and the Chicago Shakespeare Theater would do on their Macbeth, their first production of the play in twenty years or so. To give Chicago Shakes a lot of credit, this contemporary-set Macbeth is flashy, daring, sexy, multi-tasking, it’s a play that should successfully bring in non-traditional audiences (read, younger and hipper) into one of the traditional bastions of conservative, greying, “we-like-it-straight-up” theater-going in the city. But it’s also a Macbeth that I have to recommend to friends and fellow theater aficionados with reservations. First of all, there’s so many showy gimmicks, gadgets, and devices in this staging, that sometimes I felt like I was watching Shakespeare as done by JJ Abrams. There is a reason why Shakespeare tragedies are considered timeless; there’s a lot of profound themes and beautiful language in them that should be clearly heard; unfortunately in this production, these are sometimes obscured or buried under all that strutting and showboating. More problematic for me though is my sense that the artistic choices (nudity, video projections, electronica, etc.) were made not because they came out intrinsically or organically, from some incisive, expansive theatrical vision of the text, but because someone thought, in a theoretical, distanced, non-pragmatic way, that they would bring into the theater the coveted Twitter generation. Some parts of this staging ultimately feels forced and disingenuous. My reaction to seeing this production of Macbeth is akin to my reaction when one of my friends’ moms sends me a Friend Request on Facebook – grateful and amazed that they’re embracing of-the-moment technology, but also awkward, somewhat embarrassed, quite mystified as to why, at their age, they would want to read my wall posts and status updates.

I have contradictory reactions to many elements of this Macbeth – bowled over and excited one minute, and then groaning with disbelief the next. I really like that the Three Witches are oftentimes portrayed as journalists or paparazzi. I think that’s a clever, sock-to-the-gut criticism of our voyeuristic, media circus of a society where power and status, whether in politics or entertainment, are measured by how much “buzz” you have. People do crazy things to get their Warholian 15 minutes of fame, just like Macbeth and Lady M. But then I’m also perplexed as to why at the beginning of Act II, set in an S and M bar, the Three Witches suddenly become leather-clad whores (and seeing the great Mike Nussbaum, the original Mamet interpreter who plays one of the Witches, as a leather tranny, is one of those “I can‘t believe I‘m seeing this” moments). Where did that come from? It feels gratuitous. I don’t think it’s a good idea to use electronic synthesizers and overlapping voiceovers (this is a prime example of some of the maddeningly irrelevant sound effects that are used in this production) during the Witches’ speeches because you can hardly hear the wonderful language that Shakespeare wrote. I think the use of video is powerful in scenes that illuminate the character’s inner thoughts and emotional state, such as when Macbeth is made Thane of Cawdor (an effective close-up of Ben Carlson gives the audience a clue that the little motors of scheming have started to roll inside his brain) or when Lady Macbeth definitively spirals into madness (projecting film of bloody scenes onto Karen Aldridge’s white nightgown is magnificent and powerful). It is gratuitous and unnecessary and show-offy, though, when it’s used for the sake of itself, such as when Banquo’s bloody face is projected on the back of a chair during the dinner party (if you’re going to have half-naked Banquo come out anyway during the party, you might as well can the film. Frankly, I prefer to see buff Danforth Comins, who plays Banquo, in the flesh, so to speak, ahem). I am impressed to see Gaines bring out the dangerous, edgy sexual quality of the piece with scenes such as Aldridge’s nude scenes and failed oral sex, but there’s very few of them (unlike, say, Robert Fall’s King Lear a couple of years ago, where the sexual energy of the three daughters were very much into play from beginning to end). If you’re going to make Macbeth smolder, then don’t hold back, bring the sexy on!

Which shouldn’t be a problem with this terrific, and yes, sexy, cast. Carlson, so brilliant as Hamlet two seasons ago at Chicago Shakes, is equally brilliant here – with a shaven head, trim beard, piercing eyes, looking like a hot porn daddy in his tight military fatigues, he gives Macbeth a contemporary edge, feral and haunted, dickhead and wuss, psychotic and sympathetic at the same time. It’s a compulsively watchable, riveting, gargantuan performance. He is matched by Aldridge as Lady Macbeth, the woman who gives First Ladies a bad name. Fresh off her memorable Queen Isabella in Sean Graney’s Edward II, also at Chicago Shakespeare in the fall, she crafts another indelible, stellar portrait. She effectively balances the portrayal of Lady Macbeth as her husband’s accomplice, protector, tormentor, and guilty conscience. Aldridge’s smoking, supersized performance is barely contained by the theater, especially in her descent-into-madness scene, powerfully, meticulously done. There’s a lot of terrific, detailed work from the rest of the cast, especially from Nussbaum, who also doubles as a hammy Porter, the play’s only comic relief; Philip James Brannon, as a reluctant but idealistic Malcolm; and especially Comins as a really virile Banquo, who makes the Witches’ prophecy that Scotland’s future kings will come from his lineage very believable (and I love the combustible mix of fratboy rivalry, best-friend loyalty and homoeroticism that Carlson and Comins have in their scenes together, which adds a LOT more layers to the text). I’m not too keen on Evan Buliung’s low-key, almost disinterested Macduff. It’s a different interpretation from the usually intense Macduffs I see so it’s a little perplexing for me.

Macbeth is one of the greatest plays ever, in my opinion, with brilliantly, carefully, vividly drawn psychological portraits and potent, exceptionally-constructed language. It doesn’t need a lot of bells and whistles to continue to make it fresh, relevant and contemporary. What it does need is a directorial trust that the play speaks to a wide variety of audiences who appreciate great dramatic literature, whether they’re Facebooking, Twittering, Blackberrying, I-Phoning audiences or not.

Macbeth is at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Avenue, until March 8.


2 Responses to “MacDaddy”

  1. Henri Says:

    We’re seeing the Scottish play on Wednesday. In the meantime, Pablo Schreiber is my new boy toy. OOOOMMMMGGGGG!!! We’ll see how Danforth Comins measure up.

  2. Joel Says:

    Went to see this last night. I agree that there were a ton of “gimmicks” that are sometimes interesting and sometimes obviously for shock value. However, I would recommend people go–it was a fun performance. The actors themselves embrace the gimmicks, and they give the show a good energy.

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