“By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes.”
One of Shakespeare’s scariest lines comes from what is easily his scariest play, ‘Macbeth,’ a show so frightening most theater people refuse to speak the title aloud.
In the third season of Shakespeare in the Cannery—in the old cannery ruins near Railroad Square—director David Lear unleashes an offbeat, seriously gonzo take on the Bard’s bloody masterpiece, blending modern jeans, combat boots, and bike leather with traditional elements like capes, cackling witches, blood drenched swords … and a head in a bloody bag—which never gets old.
Overall, Lear’s vision is impressive. He springs masks, trapdoors, and a whole toolbox of other theatrical tricks, including the incorporation of drummers from Sonoma County Taiko, pounding out a live percussive score throughout the show.
Shakespeare’s eerie supernatural tragedy tells the twisty-gory tale of the highly suggestible Scottish warrior Macbeth, played by Ben Stowe, who emphasizes the reluctance and fear beneath his character’s fighting façade. At Macbeth’s side, sort of, is his blindly ambitious wife, whom Shakespeare never gave a name to. She is always only ‘Lady Macbeth,’ played here with cruel coolness by Ilana Niernberger. Mr. and Mrs. M are goaded into traitorous action by the riddle-spouting Weird Sisters—you know, the ‘bubble, bubble, toil and trouble twins— who tell Macbeth he will become king.
Anyone else might sit around and wait for the crown to fall in their laps, but Lady M. wants that crown, and Duncan, the king, just invited himself over for dinner so . . . why waste an opportunity? Screwing their courage to the sticking place—a line that here takes on a seriously sexy second meaning—the married first-time murderers argue a bit before finally offing Duncan, quickly shifting blame to his sons, and then taking his throne as king and queen.
That would be a terrible end to the story.
But fortunately for the audience, Macbeth—not to mention Shakespeare—just can’t seem to stop killing people, and the whole kill-the-king-and-then-retire-from-evil-deeds scheme soon collapses under of storm of mystery, madness and mayhem.
On a pleasingly playground-like stage, the performances sometimes stray toward the big, and over-acted. That’s not necessarily a bad choice for an outdoor show. But in this case, what’s gained in terms of clarity and size is often lost in terms of subtlety and absorbing emotion. That’s a problem enhanced by a number of freaky visual ideas that—while interesting and certainly not boring—often distract from the drama rather than heighten it.
Still, there are some very strong moments in this ‘Macbeth,’ fueled by several effectively surprising acting choices. As Duncan, the doomed King, Clark Miller very convincingly plays the monarch’s essential sweetness. Eric Thompson, as a servant in Macbeth’s castle, is hilarious, making the most of the play’s one comedic scene.
Sam Coughlin, as Duncan’s vengeful son, is impressively complex in a very small part. And as Macbeth’s fellow warrior Banquo, Alan Kaplan brings a sense of affronted decency and a solid soldiers’ bearing to a role usually played by a much younger man.
Though perhaps lacking in actual human drama and emotion, playing more like a Halloween pageant than an actual tragedy, this particular ‘Macbeth’ is probably an excellent production to introduce kids to Shakespeare with. Energetic and ambitious—like poor befuddled Macbeth himself—the show may sometimes stumble … but it definitely brings the sound and fury.
‘’Macbeth’ runs Friday & Saturday through July 23 at The Cannery. Visit www.shakespeareinthecannery.com