By William Shakespeare; Directed by Andrew Borthwick-Leslie
Produced by The Humanist Project
Off Off Broadway, Classic
Runs through 4.30.17
Secret Theatre, 44-02 23rd Street, Long Island City
by Ran Xia on 4.22.17
Welland Scripps, Claire Warden, Michael F. Toomey, and Zach Libresco in Macbeth. Photo by Ariella Axelbank.
BOTTOM LINE: The Humanist Project gets inventive in this action-packed five-person minimalist Macbeth, adding comedy to the austere play while keeping its essence intact.
At first glance Macbeth is a tragedy of fate. The cryptic words of the twisted sisters set the story in motion and the characters become mere pawns in a cruel game of the supernatural. But just like its Greek precedents, where heroes succumb to the very fate they try to evade, often with ill-advised actions including unnecessary violence, Macbeth’s undoing is a result of a bloated case of greed and unadulterated cruelty, both of which are painfully human and should not be blamed on wizardry. “It is a tale. Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury.” And the tale, since Willy Shakes first conjured the spirit of pale Hecate, has haunted the pilgrims of theaters everywhere.
The austere play is so saturated with gore that it could put Tarantino to shame. Just by uttering the name Macbeth, you can practically taste the air of a bleak Scotland, heavy with the mix of ash and salty blood. From Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, Orson Welles’ Voodoo Macbeth (set in Haiti with an all-black cast), to the more contemporary takes including Alan Cumming’s solo asylum-centric production and Punch Drunk’s immersive Sleep No More, the pathos of the Scottish play seeps through the vein of creative minds though the ages and will be forever fresh, like the bloodstain on Lady M’s hand. It’s nevertheless a difficult play to tackle.
The Humanist Project doesn’t alter the contexts, or language, in their take on the Scottish play. Indeed it’s a production faithful to the original text, except it’s done with a five-person ensemble playing an army of colorful characters. If you recall the Bedlam production of Hamlet or Saint Joan, this has the similar scrappy aesthetics and minimalist approach.
To recap the plot: Macbeth, a Scottish royal and decorated soldier, becomes obsessed with the prophecy of three witches who call him King of Scotland, and ends up murdering a whole lot of people with the encouragement of his equally maniacal wife. He gets what he deserves in the end. (If you have no idea what happens to Macbeth, go online and watch the filmed RSC production starring young Ian McKellen and Judi Dench.) One thing is certain: this production of Macbeth is more suitable for those who are already familiar with the play. If you are, you’ll thoroughly enjoy the inventive ways the ensemble recreates various iconic moments in the play in the Secret Theatre's restrictive space.
The five actors are impressive as they shift rapidly between various characters. The differences are also signified by Claire Townsend’s effective costume design. The sparse set (Emmie Finckel) is an almost empty stage with a textured background, which becomes the battlefield in the wilderness, the witches’ gathering ground, as well as the various halls and corridors in Macbeth’s castle with Megan Lang’s stark lighting shifts. Among the many acting highlights, Welland Scripps centers a heartbreaking scene as MacDuff discovers the news of his wife and children being brutally murdered by Macbeth’s men. The chameleonic Josephine Wilson is an eerie Hecate (and sings "Moondance" so beautifully), an earnest Banquo, and an understated yet moving Lady MacDuff. Lastly, Zach Zibresco is an audacious and charismatic Malcolm, but as Macbeth’s porter, he also delivers the most delightful moment of the play. The team doesn’t miss any opportunities to bringing comedy to this otherwise utterly bleak play, which is in a true Shakespearean spirit.
Another noteworthy element of the production is the use of chalk in place of blood. With everything on stage almost completely monochromatic, the powdery stains of chalk dust soon become the goriest sight: a bag of plaster leaking chalk dust looks just as chilling as an authentic severed head.
Blending the gritty aesthetics of downtown theatre and the meticulous Shakespearean text, The Humanist Project accomplishes a satisfying version of Macbeth that will delight fellow artists.
(Macbeth plays at Secret Theatre, 44-02 23rd Street, Long Island City, through April 30, 2017. The running time is 2 hours 40 minutes with an intermission. Performances are Wednesdays through Saturdays at 7:30; Sunday 4/16, 4/23 at 7:30, and Sunday 4/30 at 3. Tickets are $18 and are available at brownpapertickets.com. For more information visit thehumanistproject.org.)
Macbeth is by Williams Shakespeare. Directed by Andrew Borthwick-Leslie. Voice and Text is by Jenna May Cass. Movement Choreography is by Sheila Bandyopadhyay. Fight Choreography is by Trampas Thompson. Set Design is by Emmie Finckel. Costume Design is by Claire Townsend. Lighting Design is by Megan Lang. Music is by Nolan Kennedy. Stage Manager is Gina Costagliola. Assistant Stage Managers are Sarah Ryan and Laurel Livesey.
The cast is Michael F. Toomey, Claire Warden, Welland Scripps, Josephine Wilson, and Zach Libresco.