I honestly can’t tell you how many productions of Shakespeare’s Macbeth I’ve seen. I was in one and I know I’ve seen more than four and probably less than fourteen other productions. I’ve never seen a more exciting or clearer version than the Red Bull Theater production of Mac Beth, stunningly adapted and directed by Erica Schmidt, currently playing at the Lucille Lortel Theatre.
At this point there is absolutely no reason to do another production of any Shakespeare play in New York City unless you have something really fresh to bring to the table, or unless you’re the New York Shakespeare Festival. And if you think you do – think again. And talk to some other people who have no stake in whether you do or not and who don’t care if they hurt your feelings! And only then can you consider doing a production. Advice I wish another currently running Shakespeare production had heeded.
In the case of Mac Beth, Erica Schmidt does indeed have a new light to shine on a four-hundred-year-old play. She has set it in the present in an abandoned field with an overturned couch and old bathtub among the weeds, small stream and tree trunks. First, three schoolgirls in uniforms and gray capes with hoods arrive from different sides of the stage without acknowledging each other. They have backpacks and cellphones with headphones plugged into them. They turn off their electronics and get themselves set up. When they start speaking the first lines of Shakespeare’s play it’s clear they’re the three witches (AnnaSophia Robb, Sophie Kelly-Hedrick, and Sharlene Cruz). When two more schoolgirls arrive with their uniforms on and capes carelessly thrown over their shoulders, they are obviously taking on the roles of Macbeth (Isabelle Fuhrman) and Banquo (Ayana Workman).
The gender bending alone is an interesting twist in that originally, in Shakespeare’s time, all the roles would have been played by men. The women’s roles would have been played by young boys whose voices had not yet changed. In Macbeth, Shakespeare repeatedly takes jabs at the gender of the female characters of the witches and Lady Macbeth who would have been played by boys. When Macbeth and Banquo first come upon the Weird Sisters, Banquo says, “What are these?...You should be women?” And in Lady Macbeth’s (Ismenia Mendes) famous soliloquy after she has read Macbeth’s letter about the Witches prophecies she exhorts the spirits to give her strength by saying “Come you Spirits/That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,/And fill me, from the crown to the toe, top-full/Of direst cruelty!” But in Schmidt’s 2019 Mac Beth these utterances take on new meanings from the mouths of teenage girls.
The other element that becomes blindingly clear in this Mac Beth is the frightening combination of emotional immaturity, physical prime, raging hormones and group hypnosis that is the state of teenagerhood. Echoes of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible spring to mind as do more plucked from the headlines incidents such as the “Slender Man” incident in 2014 that Schmidt subtly references at the end. The cast is extraordinary. The three Weird Sisters each play many roles in addition to the witches and manage, with expert staging by Erica Schmidt, to be explicit and clear about each individual character while still maintaining their core identities as schoolgirls. Which is a feat the entire cast manages to pull off with extreme naturalness and ease. Kudos to all.
(Photo by Carol Rosegg)
"Director Erica Schmidt explores some interesting ideas in her adaptation, even drawing parallels to the Slender Man case involving teenage girls who prove susceptible to acts of extreme violence against each other. But as a director, she’s produced a loud, exasperating muddle."
Thom Geier for The Wrap