According to program notes for Erika Schmidt’s production of Shakespeare’s Mac Beth (spelled with two words) for Red Bull Theater, the inspiration for the current revival was the The Slender Man and West Virginia stabbings in which school-age girls with no previous records of violence killed a friend for no apparent reason. The problem here is that if you have not read the notes before seeing the performance you would not guess at the interpretation. It is not until the final scene that this becomes clear with the culminating violence and one of the witches saying to the other, “We really did go on three,” the notorious Twitter post of one of the West Virginia high school girls after their stabbing of their friend in 2012.
Schmidt’s streamlined adaptation of Shakespeare’s Scottish tragedy is played by a cast of seven schoolgirls who meet in an abandoned urban field after school without any set up other than that they throw down their book bags before launching into the first scene. Designed by Jessica Pabst, their school uniforms made up of cape with hood, a blazer, a skirt, and tie are made of Scottish tartan which is appropriate for this play. Every prop in the show comes from the backpacks and purses they carry with them. The girls perform the play without reading from the text as though they have studied it in school and are thoroughly versed in it. Once they enter the scene, the girls never exit but sit on the sidelines watching for the rest of the play.
The text has been slightly altered with a very few substituted contemporary words to demonstrate that the girls are aware of the changes and have themselves updated the dialogue. The opening scene is a mashup of both the Witches’ first and third scene dialogue in Act I. Among other clever modern changes, Lady Macbeth reads her husband’s letter on her smart phone, and later the witches take selfies. Among the seemingly innocuous props taken from their backpacks are flashlights, paper cups, juice, plastic baby dolls, and ultimately kitchen knives.
Designer Catherine Cornell’s initially pastoral scene includes an upside down sofa and an old-fashioned bathtub, both of which come into play as part of the storyline, as well as a pool of water a little further back than half way on the thrust stage. Four of the actresses play one character each (Macbeth, Banquo, Lady Macbeth and Macduff). However, the three witches each play four additional characters which is a bit confusing to follow. However, the production is always exciting and the acting vigorous as the girls hurl themselves into the reenactment and get more and more carried away as the play nears its conclusion. Bits and pieces of their uniforms come off as the play continues so that by the final battle scene they look like warriors. Their capes are also put to good use as costumes.
Isabelle Fuhrman makes a sturdy Macbeth, while Ismenia Mendes’ Lady Macbeth is fiery hot. As Banquo, Ayana Workman is initially rather naïve, but becomes quickly scary in the ghost scene. Lily Santiago’s Macduff is a stalwart, heroic character. Dressed slightly differently, with different hair styles and colors, plus accoutrements (one wears glasses), AnnaSophia Robb, Sophie Kelly-Hedrick and Sharlene Cruz are fine as the witches, later returning in the other scenes in various guises including messengers and attendants. Robb makes an amusingly bawdy Porter while Kelly-Hedrick is vicious as Malcolm in his London scene in which he tests Macduff’s loyalty. As the gentlewoman to Lady Macbeth who witnesses the sleepwalking scene, Cruz is a very savvy servant. As their roles are not listed in the program other than as witches, it is not always apparent who is playing which role.
While the energy of the seven performers is palpable, the production is probably best enjoyed by theatergoers who know the play as it helps to be able to follow the minor characters and the cut scenes often leaving little or no transitions. Originally presented by the Seattle Repertory Theatre, Erika Schmidt’s production presented in New York by Red Bull Theater initially seems like a gimmick until the very end. Would that the adaptation had given us an inkling as to where it was going before the conclusion when the realistic kitchen knives come out.
Mac Beth (through June 9, 2019)
Red Bull Theater
Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-352-3101 or visit http://www.redbulltheater.com
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission