Off Broadway Reviews
If you were in New York City the second to last weekend in May, you could've attended three different productions of Macbeth: one at the Japan Society set in a magical boxing ring where koi fish and manga characters delivered the Bard's famous soliloquies, one at the Clemente where Lady Macbeth took center stage and told the story from her point of view, and Red Bull Theater's production retitled Mac Beth (through June 9th) in which an all-female ensemble brought out the violent gender dynamics of the play.
Adapted and directed by Erica Schmidt, Mac Beth sets the action in a corner of the woods, where seven high schoolers gather to do a run through of the play. Are they rehearsing for a school production? Are they doing it as part of their drama club? Or are they simply so into Shakespeare that this is how they spend their afternoons? Schmidt's adaptation never provides an obvious answer. Instead we're thrown into the action, or rather the action is thrown onto us, as we become voyeurs witnessing the young women do the play, complete with props, costume changes, and uninvited, but not unexpected, violence.
In fact the point of Mac Beth seems to be asking where do performers blur the line between acting and real life? If "all the world is a stage," when do actors stop acting? Since the play doesn't establish a clear framing device, audience members are invited to use their imaginations and wonder why and how all these young women ended up together. But what might be a challenge for audience members accustomed to traditional takes on Shakespeare, will satisfy those in search of meta-theatrical experiences, as the play becomes a deliciously wicked study on how well we can detect when someone is acting.
A tender mercy is provided at one point in which the Weird Sisters gather to create their infamous potion, as they "double, double toil and trouble," one of the young women is surprised at the slimy piece of flesh another pulls from her bookbag. "Where did you get that?" she asks, "from the science lab," replies the other (a fantastic AnnaSophia Robb) with a giggle. In this way this adaptation also plays with our familiarity with the work, as the slight break in character assures us that there is a richer life to each of these women than the ones we imposed on them through our preconceptions of Shakespeare's characters.
As the performance follows the tragedy of the doomed Scottish general (played with grace and conviction by Isabelle Fuhrman) the actresses putting on the show also find a chance to channel their own dark impulses, and Macbeth's death is followed by an act of violence just as horrifying as those the character committed. Schmidt's adaptation was inspired by the real life case of two young girls in Winsconsin who in 2014 murdered another friend, and claimed they were trying to appease a macabre figure they called Slender Man.
Slender Man has gone on to become part of our modern myths and horror figures, but beyond clinical diagnoses, accusations of poor parenting and societal blame, the murder revealed an aspect of girlhood that our culture wasn't ready to deal with. Young women, we are told, are supposed to be gentle, caring and nurturing. Leave violence and rough games to the boys. But Shakespeare knew better, for a closer look at many of his plays and Macbeth in particular, reveals a world where women not only drive the violence, but thrive on it. They aren't the ones going into battle, but few generals are as conniving, ruthless and efficient as Lady Macbeth.
As Mac Beth brings this darkness to the surface we are suddenly in front of a play that becomes unrecognizable. The Weird Sisters and Lady Macbeth become the true protagonists, and as the capable actresses play the male characters we find unexpected qualities in characters like Banquo and Macduff, their naive loyalty to their masters revealed to be as blind and nonsensical as the faith women are told they must have on their husbands. In the words of the wise witches, "Fair is foul, and foul is fair."
Sitting through Mac Beth reminded me of a strange incident that I witnessed in the sixth grade. As we learned about Greek mythology, ruled by male deities like Zeus, Poseidon and Hades, one of my female classmates swore she had become possessed by the spirit of Persephone. During recess she would go into a trance-like state and assure us she could see the future. As ten-year-olds we didn't know better and we became fascinated by her power. Not being a psychologist, I wouldn't dare even imagine a diagnosis, but now I can see clearly that what she did was reclaim the narrative and remind us all of the power of women. If you asked any of us back then, we all forgot about Zeus, but Persephone had become so real, we could've sworn she was alive.