One reason Shakespeare's Macbeth has retained its appeal over the centuries is its timeless resonance. The story of a politically ambitious couple who use the excuse of supernatural prophesy to murder their way to the throne of Scotland can be molded to fit conspiracy plots of any stripe.
In Barbara Garson's 1966 MacBird!, the title character is a thinly veiled version of Lyndon Johnson, who plots with Lady MacBird to assassinate John Ken O' Dunc, a conflation of King Duncan (Macbeth's first victim) and JFK. In Eugene Ionesco's absurdist refraction MacBett, Duncan, his son Malcolm and the faithful Banquo are as shallow, venal and bloodthirsty as the Macbeths. Now Burlington playwright/ director Shoshannah Boray takes her turn with Witches' Brew, a "re-imagining" of Shakespeare in "a time not unlike our own."
Boray (nee Jennifer Bloomfield) seeds the original text with her own versions of Shakespeak, plus occasional tart interjections of present-day colloquial. Where Garson used the story as a cudgel for Johnson-bashing, Boray's script goes for a more wide-ranging critique of the abuses and allures of power, though its relevance to recent presidencies is apparent. But it's only when she blurs the boundaries between actors and audience that it feels like she's truly shaking things up.
It's hard to believe when you're first seated that anything more populous than a one-man show could squeeze itself into the tiny performance space cum bar on the ground floor of 135 Pearl. But the intimacy helps foster a convivial, relaxed mood, as does The Brew, a four-person combo playing music director Craig Mitchell's tasty sax-driven score. (Magic Hat's Witches' Brew also contributes to the buzz; you can buy it at the bar.)
The in-your-face proximity of the actors heightens the impact of the production's most effective scene: the banquet at the opening of the second act in which Macbeth (Aaron Masi) sees the ghost of Banquo (MikO O'Hara), who's just been murdered. Audience members, some of whom are reseated during intermission at tables in the thick of the action, are liable to find themselves between a bleeding Banquo and an agitated Lady M (Tracey Lynne Girdich) as she tries to explain her husband's wild-eyed ravings to the guests. "My lord is a little nutty," she explains in one of Boray's funnier amalgams of Elizabethan formality and American slang.
The transition into this scene also features some of the best use of the actresses (Logan Howe, Hannah Wall) who play the witches (Girdich plays a witch, too, but she's most often seen as Lady M). Boray has a very specific symbology in mind for her witches (more on that in a bit), but her smarter idea, both logistically and meta-phorically, is to cast them in all the minor roles -- servants, wenches, murderers -- so that they become like recurring phantoms in Macbeth's private fever dream.
For the banquet, they're the minions of Lady M; she makes impossible demands ("Organic milk-fed veal imported from the Swiss Alps!") and they in turn get all bossy with the audience ("Up, up!"). There's a freewheeling mood to the intermission and banquet, and to the audience-participation dance party that concludes the evening, that really does feel like a re-envisioning of Shakespeare, medieval-nightclub-style.
In other instances of direct address to the audience, the actors can come off as forced, artificial. The witches, when they're not assuming one of their supporting roles, wear streetwalker chic and prowl the front rows making spooky claw-hands reminiscent of a sixth-grade Halloween pageant, albeit to a Madonna-esque beat (the musical arrangement of "Double, double " is straight out of her white-girl rap period, circa "Vogue").
More egregiously, Boray saddles poor Banquo with a prologue and epilogue which portentously make points she should allow the play to make for itself: "There are no innocents," he announces at the beginning, casting a doleful implicating glare around the audience. Ooh. And he is assigned the unfortunate duty of telling us at the end what the witches represent: Money, Flesh and Power. These morality-play monikers seem both tardy and inaccurate, since we've already seen each of these actresses embody all of these concepts.
And there's really no need for Boray to lay a Message on the audience, because the rest of her play does that pretty well without resorting to a sledgehammer. Masi's Macbeth vividly establishes that he's all too ready to accept the witches' promises of greatness; they simply provide convenient otherworldly backup for ambitions he was harboring anyway. ("I always have time for the press," he says when a reporter/witch interviews him about his promotion to Thane of Cawdor.)
Fueled by self-fulfilling prophesies, he and his wife convince themselves that they're "corrupting for a higher power," doing the Lord's duty by overthrowing a king who's "drunk on power and swallowed by sex." Any similarities between this higher-power couple and our present God-infused White House are purely intentional.
No cowboy hats here, though. Masi and Girdich are quite a bit more glam than the Bushes, he tall and bearded in a double-breasted suit and a jabot; she elegantly sexy in a gold lame crown and leather corset. They're also a considerably spicier pair than Dubya and Laura: Their connection reaches its climax, so to speak, in a blackly comic tango, "Let's Kill Him Tonight."
I wish Boray had figured out how to maintain this kind of illuminating irreverence throughout the production. Instead, when she gets to some of the most famous, and famously complex, passages -- Lady M's sleep-walking scene ("Out, damned spot! ") and Macbeth's "To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow" soliloquy -- she and her actors seem to hit a wall. Masi and Girdich are smart, even compelling performers, but they play these pivotal moments straight and staid, with little color or invention. Granted, it's tricky business fooling around too much with such venerated language, but where's the "re-imagining?"
It's hard to know what Boray is trying to say at these moments. This is true, too, of the way in which some of the characters are treated. Banquo's solemn moralizing is inconsistent with the regular-guy persona he's assigned in the rest of the play -- though that does allow him some funny throwaway lines. Macduff (F. Brett Cox) is portrayed as a fey bureaucrat in ruffles and a kilt ("No tears, there's no time"). That choice is fine as far as it goes, but it becomes problematic when Macduff learns of his family's massacre, a scene which is played with utter seriousness in close adherence to Shakespeare's original text. Are we still supposed to laugh?
There's clearly an animating intelligence at work in this production and, despite pacing problems on opening night, it's never dull. But surprisingly enough, despite the contemporary accents, this Cliff Notes version of Macbeth is at times too faithful to the source.