BWW Review: Erica Schmidt's MAC BETH Explores Shared Adolescent Delusions Through Shakespeare
It's the players, more so than the play, that's the thing in director Erica Schmidt's psychologically intriguing Shakespeare adaptation titled Mac Beth. As with the current Daniel Fish-directed Broadway production of OKLAHOMA!, the focus of the evening is not so much on the text, but on the characters the actors are portraying who are portraying the characters in the text.
Schmidt's fact-inspired piece - a 90-minute trimming of Shakespeare's drama presented in a refocused concept - is the second production for Red Bull Theater at their new residence, Greenwich Village's historic Lucille Lortel Theater, and is perfectly in line with their reputation for interpreting classics through an edgy contemporary lens.
What the audience witnesses in Mac Beth strongly alludes to a shocking news story from 2014 where a pair of 12-year-old Wisconsin girls lured a friend into a wooded area to stab her multiple times with a kitchen knife in order to prove themselves worthy to a popular supernatural Internet character, Slender Man. The victim survived and her attackers were diagnosed with a mental disorder that enabled them to bond through shared delusional beliefs.
Schmidt's research revealed that such violent acts among young girls under similar circumstances are not uncommon, most famously demonstrated by the tales that spawned the Salem Witch Trials.
The company of Mac Beth is made of seven women who, dressed in parochial school uniforms, don't appear to be very much older than the adolescents they portray.
Catherine Cornell's set is a grassy space with a slightly manicured look that makes it resemble one of those funky community gardens you might find on a city side-street. There's an old couch set on a concrete platform and a bathtub beside some sawed-off tree trucks that serve as steps. A plank of lumber is set across a hole in the ground that fills with water after an onstage downpour. (Unfortunately, the stage is raised to a level that obstructs views of close-to-ground action at some seats, including where this reviewer was assigned.)
The young girls who take on the roles of the witches (played by Sharlene Cruz, Sophie Kelly-Hedrick and AnnaSophia Robb) appear to be the leaders of this ritualistic playtime, with the protagonist roles assigned to their chums, played by Isabelle Fuhrman (Macbeth), Ismenia Mendes (Lady Macbeth), Lily Santiago (Macduff) and Ayana Workman (Banquo). The performances to watch for aren't so much their interpretations of the characters, but how these young women savor the escape from their regimented gender roles to play a story of male aggression featuring a woman who seeks power by pushing her husband to obtain it.
When classic plays are adapted for modern dress, there are often humorous moments when contemporary objects are utilized to substitute for period items, but with this play-within-the-play conceit, the use of candy jewelry, tampons, smartphones and plastic bags holding the ingredient for the witches' brew seem organic.
There is a Grand Guignol aspect to Mac Beth's climax, followed by a bit of dark humor that is both funny and realistically sickening.
Newcomers to Shakespeare's tragedy will undoubtedly need to study up on the source a bit in order to fully appreciate where Schmidt and her collaborators take it, but in a contemporary culture where children are said to grow up desensitized to violence, Mac Beth effectively uses a centuries-old play to deliver timely social commentary.