by Chris Jones
January 12, 2009
In Barbara Gaines' rollicking, restless, R-rated, recession-busting production of Macbeth at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, the action bounces from press conference to airport to strip club to a video-conferencing room where ghosts fly across the Internet. The Thane of Cawdor and his restless Lady reside in an expansive penthouse in downtown Chicago. And when this sexually charged pair hold a cocktail party to further their murderous ambitions, you hear the tinkle of a piano.
The tune? "Witchcraft."
That's not the only musical clue in Ganies' cheerfully campy conceit—at another point I thought I heard a few bars of Blondie's "One Way or Another," which contains quite the apt lyric for the Scottish play, "I'm gonna getcha." But it should be enough to warn you off if you like your Shakespearean tragedy lean, minimalist, subtle or simple, or if you think the best classical directorial concepts are seen little and heard less.
But this is Macbeth, that most uneasy and stylistically inconsistent work of Shakespeare's greats, a drama that, at once, contains politics, poetry and paganism, awesome insight and sustained irony, witticisms and witches. As fans of the TV show Slings and Arrows well know, it's an article of faith in theatrical circles that this hellacious, hybrid play is impossible to realize in an aesthetically consistent fashion. That would be like trying to shove a sprig of battery-powered heather into a bottle of smooth Scotch.
So why not cast the octogenarian actor Mike Nussbaum as one of a morphing trio of witches, who spend much of the show in the guise of journalists? Why not have Lady M. half-naked in a bathtub? Why not play up the comedy? Why not suggest links between Malcolm and Barack Obama, and have the lingering witches rain on that conclusionary parade like a triangular personification of the economic meltdown?
As long as all of this is in service of some interesting ideas, a potent point of view and a desire to forge an accessible link between a contemporary audience and the play's stew of ideas, then play on McGaines, say I. This is the kind of gutsy show—and it is a very gutsy show—that invites objection in part because it dares to be excessively generous with the fodder to which one might object.
Aside from intellectual rigor, this is an exceptionally stimulating and sexy production that throws all manner of things up into the frigid air of this most nervous of winters. And it manages some things that most productions of Macbeth don't. Most notably, it reminds us that what's usually staged as a clash of ambitious adults is actually a family tragedy. I don't mean a family-friendly tragedy; I mean a lot of murdered children.
Sure, the whole show is seriously overcooked. Gaines uses the services of the great videographer Mike Tutaj—who can do almost anything, given the budget—and the show just can't say no to his offerings (we don't really need horror video on Lady M's gown). There is too much clatter in places. And there's too much noise—the voice-altering device used by the otherwise fascinating witches obscures too much of what's they're saying.
Gaines has several exceptional actors in her cast, including (in the two most important roles) Ben Carlson, the current leading man of Canada's Stratford Festival, and the remarkable Chicagoan Karen Aldridge. Both turn in exceptionally interesting performances—Carlson, an exciting, class-neutral tragedian, has the right mix of gravitas, scrappiness, articulation and bewilderment. Aldridge makes Lady M. a human being by showing us the emotional source of her doubts even before she has done anything to regret. Along with Phillip James Brannon (as Malcolm), Aldridge gives this show its open-hearted emotional core.
There's another top-notch performance from a Canadian in Evan Buliung's fascinating, layered Macduff. But, in general, none of these fine actors is given enough of the focus. There are not enough moments when everything stops and stares at the human beings exemplifying these themes. It's a moment typified by the "Life's but a walking shadow" soliloquy. Carlson—and Gaines—send it right to your gut, even as your eyes struggle to pick Macbeth out of all the world's chaos. But then it were ever so. And here, thanks to Gaines' increasingly fertile and maximalist mind, you at least want to find him very badly.