For those who prefer their Shakespeare done “traditionally,” times are tough. The idea of what constitutes traditional staging of Shakespeare’s work is elusive, at best, since at least eight of his scripts have no defined time period and “traditional,” in most people’s minds, comes down to tights and some sense of Elizabethan trappings. Whatever stance one takes on the sacredness of Shakespeare’s timelines, the only real point to be made is whether a production and a director’s vision tell a compelling story. In too many attempts at contemporary relevancy and novelty, jarring juxtapositions of modern sensibility and iambic pentameter leave audiences more confused than enlightened. And now, even as Trinity Rep piles on pages of exposition in the program justifying their current, “modern” take on Macbeth, the net effect is loud and murky, signifying, well, nothing.
Updating Macbeth is neither rare nor impossible. Political greed and ambition coupled with ruthless force is low-hanging fruit for any storyteller looking for relevance. Netflix’s “House of Cards” TV series outdid the 1990 BBC original with a storyline that not only presages the current White House, but goes beyond it into some heady “what if” territory. Even Trinity’s show poster/program seems to hint that their take is set in some corporate landscape, all suits and hostile takeovers, which, if not exciting, seems adequately relevant. What we get, however, is a grab bag of ideas, few of which seem to relate to any coherent vision beyond, “we had the budget for that.” Videogame soldiers (with armor resembling a take on a much better-realized costume design from Trinity’s ambitious take on Beowulf), nightclub DJs, Lululemon workout garb and some shaky practical magic all clash in an effect not unlike having too many browser windows open and cycling among them in a mad dash to be entertained. There’s production value in spades, but the story is lost in some uneven casting and no clear sense of direction.
Before delving any deeper, let’s acknowledge upfront that some audiences may enjoy this production. It’s big, bold and features some fine performances. Trinity even managed to convince The Wall Street Journal to stop by and give the production its blessing. All well and good, except some theatergoers may be misled into thinking that this is how Shakespeare is “supposed” to be done in 2019, when the simple fact is that, with these plays, less is often more if the director and actors don’t rely on smoke and mirrors (literally) to cover up a lack of faith in the language. Appealing to the attention spans of younger audiences is laudable, but there is plenty of evidence in local theaters to indicate that one can have both spectacle and storytelling, without sacrificing either. And since when does The Wall Street Journal cover RI theater?
Entering the upstairs theater at Trinity, audiences are presented with a scene that evokes more rock concert than political tragedy. Michael McGarty’s design looks sparsely utilitarian, but with promise lurking in every corner. A DJ in a booth above stage right (a scene most likely lost for anyone sitting extreme house left) is laying down some soundscapes while scaffolding, ladders and sunken recesses indicate a playground of levels. A net hangs ominously down from a central lighting grid, promising …something. Microphones on stands await some yet-to-come pronouncements and we wait for it all to come together and make sense. What look like mirrored cubes are recessed into the upstage wall, again presaging some wonderful effect (spoiler: they do, in one of the production’s more clever lighting/scenic moments). Everything starts promisingly, after an amusing bit of exposition that features a blood-spewing treadmill with a well-realized trio of witches (Jeanine Kane, Stephen Berenson and Janice Duclos). They not only look the part (sort of a haggard, undead version of the witches from Hocus Pocus), but own the language in a manner that propels the familiar poetry into something immediately accessible. It is with the addition of Macbeth (Mauro Hantman) and Banquo (Stephen Thorne) that the lines start to diverge.
Here, one wonders at director Curt Columbus’ casting choices as the sublime Thorne coasts easily as the comrade-in-arms while Hantman, who is perfectly capable of good work, seems to struggle for an identity. This Macbeth is all bro-fury as if his rage stems from too many Red Bulls and the occasional performance enhancing drug instead of a slow descent into political madness. One wonders how different the show would be if the two actors reversed roles. More detrimental to the production, however, is the lack of connection between Hantman and his partner in crime, Lady Macbeth, here portrayed by an eager but somewhat out-of-her-depth Julia Atwood. Aside from a few fine moments of soliloquy, Atwood never really gives us any sense into her own motives, or even her subsequent guilt. Both actors yell a lot, but it comes from nowhere. We’re resigned to some nice costume changes and some attempt to move from yoga to diva with a red dress that ultimately upstages its wearer. Secondary characters fare much better, including a revelatory Rachael Warren who seems underutilized not only as the expository Lennox, but as a simply heartbreaking Lady Macduff. Fred Sullivan, Jr.’s take on the Zelig-like Ross (Ross always seems to be around during key plot twists) is a nice piece of work as well. Alex Platt, an actor with a strong pedigree, is also powerful as Macduff, but is hung out to dry eventually by vague direction and some underwhelming fight choreography.
Ultimately, this Macbeth is a bit of mess. And what’s worse is that it’s not even a memorable mess. The aforementioned Beowulf, also directed by Columbus, was grand in its failings. It didn’t always work, but it was a moonshot that paid off simply by existing and having a solid vision. This attempt at Macbeth is scattershot, with some truly questionable choices (a bathtub filled with ghouls and … lighting instruments, the queen of witchcraft as a club DJ … yes, that same one, and a final battle scene that reduces the entire production to a “gotcha” scene better left on the cutting room floor of Stephen King’s “Creepshow”). It would be letting them off too easy to say that we expect more out of Trinity Rep simply because of their stature and ticket price. This is a series of missed opportunities, the key one of which is the irony of failing to recognize the price of ambition. In trying to be everything to everyone, this Macbeth is thus … but nothing.
Trinity Rep presents William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, directed by Curt Columbus, through March 3. Tickets are on sale by phone at 401-351-4242, online at TrinityRep.com, or in person at the theater’s box office at 201 Washington Street, PVD. Trinity Rep’s 54th season is sponsored by Ocean State Job Lot Charitable Foundation and the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts (RISCA).