The genius of Shakespeare is that his work delves into the human psyche (a term that did not exist in English in his lifetime) and so is translatable to a wide variety of settings and periods. Choosing a setting outside of the original (16th Century England) imposes responsibilities on directors to clarify the setting and relationships and on actors to “speak the speech…trippingly” so that the Bard’s elegant profanities and profane elegancies make sense to modern audiences.
L.I.P. Service produces an interesting take on William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, opening June 8 and running through June 24 at the Fire House Theatre in Farmers Branch. Set in a grunge rock-styled, dystopian universe, the production presents two hours’ worth of acceptably entertaining theatre.
The setting, a melancholy, grim space framed by dark, corrugated metal, includes a catwalk perched above the set, where characters play inches away from the lights. It inevitably suggests a backstage area. A bloody, rotating tree stump dominates the spare, grimy set, down center, serving as throne and as a screen or barrier when the director needs to emphasize separation between spaces or characters. The range of symbolic interpretations that can be applied to the stump—the only apparently ‘natural’ object on the set—is one of the production’s few exercises of intellect left to the audience’s imagination. Add the black and metal-tinged costumes on most of the cast, the bizarrely garish red and blue colored lights, and the overflow of stage fog, one has the sense of watching this story transpire among the backstage crew at a rock concert venue.
The Witches are key to any production of Macbeth; they define the contrasting realms of the plot. In the L.I.P. Service version, they appear as a trio of glam rock-style personae, costumed in feathers, chiffon, and lame in black, white, and gold. The First Witch, played with deft energy and style by Ryan Matthieu-Smith, looks as if he leaned towards full drag but stopped short, which would have made another interesting choice. The Witches exist as ‘real’ to everyone in the world of the play, not just Macbeth and Banquo in Act One.
Ideally, this combination of elements could lead to a range of potentially inventive approaches. Director Jason Levya has chosen an unsubtle and undemanding slant that is readily accessible; the predictable use of well-worn tropes and a flat emotional arc demand very little mental stretch from the audience. The wildly varying character arcs are not really ever interwoven; the best stand out, and the others simply lie there, letting the story buffet them around.
An onstage ensemble wears black with metal accents—zippers, chains, etc., with black-and-white, skull-emblazoned bandanas tied across the faces as masks, reminiscent of Old West bank robbers. This group serves as supportive chorus, at times providing an echo of significant words that tend to overpower dialogue, and at other times removing the masks to play minor roles. One notable example is Robert Dullnig, who delivers the Porter’s first speech as a sort of comic standup rehearsal, a directing choice reinforcing the backstage feel of the setting. Mildly amusing, it falls a little flat.
R. Andrew Aguilar, script co-editor, plays the title role. Beginning as a fairly balanced human being, Aguilar’s Macbeth begins to vacillate between conversation and confrontation by speaking or screaming, talking or tantrum as if at the flick of a switch. It’s not a sophisticated, nuanced performance. He does display powerful physicality; once he and Lady Macbeth begin to plot murder, his demeanor moves from lustful to bullying to downright thuggish. Approaching the play’s end, clearly in mental disintegration, he hums a recognizable tune—a creepy effect—as he slaughters people with the unnatural ease of single-minded lunacy. However, “Nearer My God to Thee” undermines the effect; confusingly, it evokes icebergs and sinking ships (think TITANIC). Aguilar’s final savage, murderous rampage as Macbeth reveals little about his sociopath mania and nothing of his desire to be the leader of a nation.
As the seductively ambitious and psychologically fragile Lady Macbeth, Dayna S. Fries hits all the right notes and drives the scenes where she appears. Her arc’s crescendo from power wife through manipulative sexual provocateur to eventual personal dissolution satisfies, tight and well pitched. In her ‘mad’ scene, the Witches control her attempts at hand-washing like puppeteers and coax her through her delusions, rendering her a victim of the same kind of manipulation as Macbeth, her partner in crime. This, her final scene, creates the most affecting moment of the evening’s performance.
Shane Beeson’s Banquo, a thoughtful, fully human friend and fatherly figure in all scenes present, merits mention and praise. Seyton, Macbeth’s henchman-assassin, played by Christopher Lew, is highly memorable as slinky and complex, no mean feat for a small role. Malcolm (Caleb Pieterse) and the efficient administrative assistant Ross (Erika Larsen) stand out as young innocents, virtuous and uncomplicated; they offer promise of something positive for the future of the bleak world created in this production.
A hint of ominous sexuality, never quite fully realized, runs throughout; we are left with the sense that these are not pleasant people. It’s hard to find even an anti-hero to root for, except possibly Macduff, cleanly realized by Henry Okigbo. He gives Macduff a full range of human emotion and defines a clear developmental arc. Even as he calls for vengeance, he projects a noble sense of duty to country and loyalty to the rightful king. Okigbo’s Macduff is a decent and fully rounded man. His portrayal lifts the production out of its stereotypical, punkish grimness.
Costumes, designed by Ryan Matthieu-Smith, are individualized while uniformly black, except for touches of red (royalty’s robes and Lady Macbeths’s wardrobe), white (two Witches and Lady Macbeth’s final costume) and a dark metallic gold for the First Witch’s glam robe. One of Lady Macbeth’s costumes, perhaps selected to suggest nakedness, reveals her undergarments oddly, visible even in the dim lighting.
Murky lighting and fog effects contribute to the grungy, backstage atmosphere. The interplay of garish blue and red lighting, especially with fog, is visually jarring, making it sometimes hard to see details of gesture and expression. Fight choreography by Jeff Colangelo and Michael E. Spencer uses the space effectively in part; executed with care, sometimes it seems overly so. The death of much heralded General Siward (Caitlin Campbell) is drawn way out and makes this presumably competent general look ineffectual as a fighter. By contrast, the fight between Macbeth and Macduff seems more a battle of equals, if ponderous.
L.I.P. Service’s adaptation of Macbeth provides an entertaining experience for those who enjoy seeing unique approaches to Shakespeare. It does not demand deep reflection over the horrors andtruths examined in this defining Shakespearean tragedy; still, it might be a fun diversion to discuss over a post-show drink with friends.
For tickets: http://www.lipserviceproductions.info
Performances at The Fire House Theatre, 2535 Valley View Lane, Farmers Branch TX
Anna Holloway is a professional dramaturg and reviewer based in Oklahoma City. She writes for The Oklahoman and for the NewsOK blog, as well as makes occasional guest appearances on Oklahoma Arts Scene and Hurd and OKConstage.com. Having directed Macbeth, she is always interested in seeing other approaches to the play.