Macbeth, directed and adapted by Richard Engling for Polarity Ensemble Theatre at the Greenhouse Theater Center in Chicago, Illinois, 22 February 2014.
Review by Regina Buccola.
In the program for the Polarity Ensemble Theatre (PET) production of Macbeth, director Richard Engling asserts that Macbeth emerges in his production as a scapegoat in the strictest sense of the term: the repository for and purgation of his society’s ills. However, over the course of PET’s production, heavy on ritual, Macbeth emerged instead as the wayward puppet of the “weyard” sisters, ultimately turning their triumphant cackles to frustrated tears of woe.
Polarity Ensemble Theatre staged their Macbeth at the Greenhouse Theater Center, a multi-performance space venue in Chicago’s Lincoln Park. In the upstairs black box space, PET employed minimal sets, props and costume pieces, with live percussion visible to the audience in a space above the downstage left wing exit.
In the production’s stunning opening prologue, stitched together out of lines taken in part from the Act 4 Hecate business, usually cut in production, the weird sisters called forth Macbeth (Jovan King), carried in on the shoulders of six cast members, who deposited him in the red pentagram that constituted the central element in the distressed concrete floor of the stage space, surrounded on three sides by audience seating which started at the same level as the stage. Macbeth stood there, arms crossed over his chest like a corpse, eyes closed, in his shirt of mail, as the weird sisters gleefully completed their demonic ministrations, including dancing, and wafting incense out of a handheld censer with feathers. Following a blackout, the action of the play proper began. The strong impression conveyed by this opening sequence was that Macbeth was little better than the apparitions later conjured out of the weird sisters’ cauldron – a demonic emissary charged with doing their bidding.
However, by Act 4, the play’s status as an exploration of not only equivocation but also of determinism (do we regard the “weyard sisters” as the Fates?) and the human struggle for autonomy became clear. Throughout the production, the weird sisters participated in the action even in scenes in which they do not appear in the play text via masked doubling. Holding a tribal mask mounted on a stick before their faces, heads shrouded in animal pelts, the weird sisters appeared as servants in the Macbeth household (such as the servant who informs Lady Macbeth that Duncan will stay at her house after Macbeth’s elevation to Thane of Cawdor), and as the messenger who warns Lady MacDuff (Kate Smith) that she should flee her home. It was in the latter instance that the extent to which the Macbeth originally conjured up by the weird sisters had deviated from their original intentions for him became apparent. In the aftermath of the murder of Lady MacDuff and her daughter (in this production, a son in the play), the weird sisters ran into the scene, loudly lamenting the death of two women they had not explicitly referenced in their “Beware MacDuff” prophecy, one poignantly picking up the doll dropped by the “young fry of treachery.” In an interesting bit of double casting, the percussionists (Jake Baker and Orion Lay-Sleeper) who offered rhythmic underscoring for scene transitions and tribal drum beats for the weird sisters’ secret, black and midnight deeds also served as the murderers conscripted to kill Banquo and Fleance, and Lady MacDuff and her children.
Cross-gender and colour-blind casting occurred throughout the production, with, for example, Banquo, Fleance (Emily Nichelson), and Lady MacDuff’s child (Wendy Walter) all portrayed by women or girls. Paige Fodor was not a particularly compelling Banquo, but she made a truly disturbing ghost, present on the stage for the banquet scene, which she entered after staring in at the feast through the slatted wooden walls and doors that constituted the zigzag backstage wall.
The weird sisters had a particular sympathy with Lady Macbeth (Lana Smithner). They cavorted about her as evil presences visible to the audience, though not to Lady Macbeth herself, during her appeal to the “mortal spirits” to “unsex” her for the task of supplanting Duncan. They seemingly seconded her sentiment that Macbeth had become “infirm of purpose,” and scarce a man when he wavered in his determination to kill the visiting king by sending one of their number (Krystal Mosley) to whirl the air drawn dagger by its hilt before Macbeth’s grasp. Finally, their mournful lamentations over the dead Lady MacDuff and her child seemed a guttural prompt for Lady Macbeth’s panicked sleepwalk query: “The Thane of Fife had a wife – where is she now?”
PET’s production used bits of red fabric and ribbons to represent blood. One particularly effective use of this device came in the aftermath of Macbeth’s murder of Duncan (Arthur Moss), when first the murderous thane and then his calculating wife entered the scene with their hands bound by red ribbons. The careful binding of their fingers and hands with the red ribbons conveyed more directly than mere stage blood could the way in which their act had, as Macbeth would later reflect, bound them to the stake, requiring that they stay the course.
When your central stage element is a red pentagram for a production of Macbeth, you can certainly get a lot of portentous mileage out of having Banquo and Macbeth stand in it to hear the prophecies of the weird women, and having Lady Macbeth kneel in it to call upon those mortal spirits and their transformation of her breast milk to gall, nicely echoed when she knelt in much the same space to obsessively wash her hands during the sleepwalking scene. However, when that red pentagram is painted on, and occupies much of the central stage (and best lighted) space, it also makes a hash of moments such as the elevation of Malcolm to King of Scotland, since he has to stand at the circle’s periphery to avoid seeming Macbeth the Tyrant, part 2, compelling MacDuff (Jeff Harris) to salute his kingship from the ominous center of the five-pointed star.
On the frigid February night that I attended the performance, with a week remaining in its run, the play was sparsely attended. Given the spirited conversation I had about the production afterwards with other theatergoers, that seems a pity – PET’s Macbeth offered a nightmare vision of powerlessness in the face of pure evil well worth debating.