by Hedy Weiss
January 12, 2009
Clever update on Navy Pier
Shakespeare's plays are littered with corpses. But Macbeth—the story of ambition gone wild, and of the widening trail of blood and guilt that accompanies one couple's quest for power—is perhaps the most unrelentingly brutal and violent of them all. In keeping with this, director Barbara Gaines conjures a genuine bloodbath in her new production for the Chicago Shakespeare Theater.
From the opening moments, when an already mortally wounded soldier is subjected to a wholly sadistic evisceration, to Lady Macbeth's suicide in a bathtub, a fetus being yanked from a womb, slayed victims suspended like sides of beef and the inescapable hallucinations of butchered victims playing out on a high-def TV screen of the mind, Gaines gives us an uncompromising battlefield. And this is no medieval drama, either, but rather, a fully modern world where the military-industrial complex parties to the sound of sophisticated piano jazz, where the well-dressed children of the rich and powerful gather for mock-rock pajama parties, and where an army marches forward, "disguised" by a sleek wall of body shields.
This is, in fact, a production so chock full of images and contemporary references, so packed with ideas and equivalencies (any hint of Patti Blagojevich as a latter-day Lady Macbeth comes with the audience) that you might find yourself reeling at certain points. But you will never be bored.
Shakespeare's story is one of upward mobility teased into overdrive, with the first criminal step toward unlawfully seized power necessarily followed by increasingly brutal steps and coverups. The victorious warrior Macbeth (Ben Carlson, whose intensely articulate delivery of some of the great speeches is ultra-modern without being gimmicky) gets caught up in the prognastications of kinghood spouted by three witches—a truly weird, generation-spanning trio of sisters played superbly by Kate Buddeke, Angela Ingersoll and Mike Nussbaum (who also gives a master class in acting as the comic castle porter). At one point they even morph into dominatrixes in a local bar. But it is Lady Macbeth (Karen Aldridge, like a latter-day Cleopatra, equal parts temptress, psychopath and voguing socialite) who taunts her husband about his "manliness," who finally drives him to do whatever it takes to get and hold the throne.
Danforth Comins, Evan Buliung, William Dick, James Newcomb, Patrick Clear, David Lively, Rengin Altay and Carolyn Klein all have their fine moments of sound and fury here, with a fiery young Phillip James Brannon as Malcolm, the true heir apparent to kingship who bears a clearcut resemblance to one Barack Obama.
Mark Bailey's sets and costumes are a study in black and white and glittery metallics, with red stains sweeping across Mike Tutaj's ingenious projections and Lindsay Jones' harrowing sound design adding to the chill of a play that is, indeed, "steeped in blood."
In the fall of 2010 Gaines will direct the Lyric Opera production of Verdi's Macbeth. She is all warmed up.