Within the first 30 seconds of Pioneer Theatre Company’s production of Macbeth—as soldiers battled in doughboy-style uniforms on a stage adorned with sandbagged and barb-wired trenches—the sick dread had already begun to take shape. It was going to be time once again for the William Shakespeare Revisionist Railroad. All aboard.
If you’ve watched enough theater—or even just watched enough movies—you know the feeling. The very timelessness that has made Shakespeare such a vital voice for over 400 years has inspired directors to every conceivable kind of tweaking. It’s Romeo and Juliet, but it’s in New York City in the 1950s. It’s Richard III, but it’s in Nazi Germany. It’s Hamlet, but it’s all in drag. Every time, there’s the potential for a brilliant new interpretation. And every time, there’s the even greater potential for something that gets so caught up in its own original spin that it doesn’t know enough to get the hell out of the way of theater’s most remarkable texts.
For 30 seconds of Macbeth, the fear bubbled up. Three minutes later, it was gone. Director Charles Morey’s Macbeth slowly pressed its bloody handprint not just on the history of the early 20th century but uncomfortably upon the present as well. The great tragedy once again had come to represent something far beyond its own time.
In case you were snoozing through high school English class, Macbeth delivers one of Shakespeare’s most straightforward narratives. Scottish nobleman Macbeth (Matt Loney), recently honored for his heroic actions in war against Norway, hears a prophecy from three witches (Joyce Cohen, Anne Stewart Mark and Trish Reading) that he is to be king. Lady Macbeth (Celeste Ciulla), keen to be queen, prompts and goads her husband into killing good King Duncan (Richard Mathews) and forcing Duncan’s sons into exile by framing them for the crime. Macbeth becomes king, and proceeds to spend his reign slaughtering all those he fears may threaten him and becoming ever more paranoid.
Morey isn’t interested in watering down any of Macbeth’s grim content; if anything, he’s out to dehydrate it into concentrated doses of startling violence. Macbeth’s murdering forces dispatch the king’s enemies with offhanded glee, pumping bullet after bullet into characters clinging to life. A baby is smothered in its bed. The witches scavenge fallen soldiers’ bodies for boots or the odd severed thumb. Fun for the whole family it ain’t.
It is, however, a striking portrayal of the human capacity for brutality. The costumes may suggest the 1930s, but it’s no great stretch to hear echoes in our current calls to arms. Violence in Macbeth is all about ego, vengeance and petty grabs for power. The single set—focused on a massive crumbling arch—never lets the focus drift from the consequences of warfare, even when the scene involves celebration. Even in the victory over the obvious tyrant, there’s no nobility.
Morey does his usual fine job of filling the cast with tremendous actors, even outside the central roles. Max Robinson gives the show one of its few welcome kicks of humor as the clowning steward, and Craig Wroe—who excelled last year in the title role of the Morey-directed Tartuffe—wraps his tongue so effortlessly around the Bard’s language as Banquo you’d think he spoke it at the dinner table. Meanwhile, Loney and Ciulla as the Macbeths are merely splendid, finding weight in the words even though they’re not as psychologically complex as Shakespeare’s other tragic leads.
Not everything works here, naturally. Too much dialogue winds up muffled or swallowed, making it difficult for the uninitiated to follow the action. And Morey occasionally pushes his design choices, like the huge blood-red spots that adorn one backdrop or the accent lights during soliloquies. But it’s hard to imagine a sharper, more effective counterpoint to PTC’s last production, Copenhagen. As dizzyingly intellectual as Copenhagen was, Macbeth proves that visceral. Morey takes a calculated gamble by launching his Macbeth into the modern world, but it pays off.
Just remember to withhold judgment for more than 30 seconds.