By William Shakespeare; Directed and Adapted by Erica Schmidt
Produced by Red Bull Theater
Off Broadway, Classic / Adaptation
Runs through 6.9.19
Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher Street
by Dan Rubins on 5.24.19
Ismenia Mendes in Mac Beth. Photo by Carol Rosegg.
BOTTOM LINE: Erica Schmidt's gruesome high school theatre club take on Macbeth gets the blood pumping but never quite coagulates.
It’s showtime in the woods. Seven teenage girls, clad in matching school uniforms, gather one evening to act out every adolescent’s favorite tale: Macbeth. But blood will have blood, they say, and there’s more than just thespian passion boiling under the surface in Red Bull Theater’s creepy, fast-paced, and ultimately unsatisfying adaptation by director Erica Schmidt.
Occasionally the girls break character: “Where did you get that?” one witch asks another incredulously as they pour the ingredients into the cauldron. “The science lab!” is the reply. But for the most part, this is a ritualistically realized rendition of "the Scottish Play," one that makes full use of the ratty couch and ancient bathtub that the teenagers have discovered in the wilderness (the photo-realistic set is by Catherine Cornell). They seem to be having fun as they scamper about in circles and lurk in the shadows waiting to re-enter. But think again. One of the witches (TV star AnnaSophia Robb, as a ringleader with feverish commitment to the project at hand) has brought a real knife which gets passed from actor to actor like they’re playing Hot Potato: Chekhov’s Gun Edition.
Audacious, yes. And Schmidt finds surprising success in restoring to a very familiar story the sense of suspense that Shakespeare intended. It's not often that modern audiences spend most of the play anxiously wondering to themselves, “Is someone going to die?” The answer to that question winds up feeling inevitable, but Schmidt’s denouement, unlike Shakespeare’s, doesn’t feel remotely earned. Gory as Macbeth might be, there’s no question about why Macbeth kills each of the innocent folks standing in his way or why Macduff takes bloody revenge. Here, with only the faintest outline of the girls’ relationships to one another peeking out from behind their fervent performances, the queasy ending feels like a concept in search of a play to support it.
It's too bad, because the premise of high school girls exploring ambition and anger and competition animates much of the play compellingly. That’s mostly because the adolescent framework gives the actors permission to tap into extremes of character that more traditionally staid performances would shy away from. Ismenia Mendes’ Lady Macbeth rolls on the ground, shrieking with glee, when she reads about the witches’ prophecy (on her iPhone). Sharlene Cruz’s raucous King Duncan brings the post-battle party to Inverness. Ayana Workman’s Banquo has a lot of fun, too, especially as a ghost. And when Robb, doubling as Malcolm, describes the Thane of Cawdor’s execution, the line “Nothing in his life became him like the leaving it” newly sparkles with a Mean Girls delivery.
Schmidt does her best directorial work when she’s imagining the girls inventing the Shakespeare staging themselves, as when they splash wine on Banquo to transform her into a bloody phantom or pretend to gallop on that couch like it’s a horse. There’s lots of humor dug up here that most productions of Macbeth lack, too. But when Schmidt tries to tell her overarching story about girls gone wild, the play gets muddy. And with such thematic murkiness, the overblown storm effects (from lighting and sound designers Jeff Croiter and Erin Bednarz) mainly amount to sound and fury—you know the rest.
Program notes suggest that Schmidt’s adaptation (with its title stylized as the two-word Mac Beth for some reason) wants to be about the thin line between reality and fantasy, how young people in a group can fall under the spell of a shared delusion. But this production never demarcates reality and fantasy sufficiently for us to recognize when that line begins to blur. Also, a note to the school groups in attendance: while the girls’ clever DIY staging makes a convincing case for arts education early on, the moral turns out to be Quit your drama club before it’s too late. But please, teenagers, screw your courage to the sticking place and stay onstage. If you use school-sanctioned props, you’ll most likely make it out of your high school theater program alive.
(Mac Beth plays at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher Street, through June 9, 2016. The running time is 1 hour 40 minutes with no intermission. Performances are Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:30; Thursdays and Fridays at 8; Saturdays at 2 and 8; and Sundays at 2. Tickets are $77 - $97 and are available at redbulltheater.com or by calling 212-352-3101.)
Mac Beth is by William Shakespeare. Directed and Adapted by Erica Schmidt. Set Design by Catherine Cornell. Lighting Design by Jeff Croiter. Sound Design by Erin Bednarz. Movement Coordinator is Lorenzo Pisoni. Stage Manager is Jane Pole.
The cast is Sharlene Cruz, Isabelle Fuhrman, Sophie Kelly-Hendrick, Ismenia Mendes, AnnaSophia Robb, Lily Santiago, and Ayana Workman.