Directed by David H. Bell
At Chicago Shakespeare Theater
First, just a quick reminder of what “Short Shakespeare!” is: an attempt to make Shakespeare, a sometimes intimidating figure, accessible, especially to younger crowds – elementary through high school ages – and give kids exposure to something that they otherwise may not have. It’s 75 minutes long, without an intermission, and after every show there is a Q&A where anyone in the audience can ask whatever they wish.
Often for these, Chicago Shakespeare opts for the comedies. They’re all basically the same, anyway, and one can sort of cut through to the main thrust of the play, presumably without eviscerating it. Think of Love’s Labour’s Lost. Now consider Henry IV. Which of these has fewer subplots and political intrigue to keep straight? Right. But this time, David H. Bell et al. (presumably, partially so they don’t get bored with the exhibition) have opted for a tragedy; in fact, one of Shakespeare’s greatest and most-feared tragedies: Macbeth.
Now, I swore after the last production I saw – Rupert Goold directing with Patrick Stewart at the helm, which anyone can now watch at the PBS website – that I would never see another. After the take of this most visionary of directors, and one of the best actors in the world, I feared that anything else would simply mar the experience. Yet, when the prospect was presented to me of reviewing this piece, I jumped at it: it would be so completely different, I thought, that it would prove incomparable. And, for the most part, it was.
The first question to ask, I think, with this sort of production is: does it succeed at what it set out to do? Which is to say, is it kid-friendly, is it succinct, is it a good introduction to Shakespeare. And I think the answer is yes. It’s engaging, it’s fast- paced, and it’s fun. The fight-scenes are well-choreographed, well-executed, and something kids (everybody, really) will definitely enjoy. The setting is post-apocalyptic, and there’s nothing really long enough to stick a head on the end of, which might explain the lack of heads on spits – that or the kids in the audience (but what child doesn’t love a good head on a pike, now and then?). The actors deal with the language well, and though occasionally one or two do dip too low in volume, the enunciation is impeccable, so people will be able, if they are unfamiliar, to pick up the language as the play goes on. It is, overall, a very good introduction to the English tongue’s greatest playwright.
Which is not to say it does not lack its problems. First of all, Macbeth is a play that needs the slow, bubbling build that takes two hours to produce; without it, the tension simply cannot become oppressive enough. The transition from Macbeth’s impotency to the Queen’s madness is breakneck. Which is simply a result of the Short Shakespeare! formula. Macbeth is played well by Mark L. Montgomery, who builds his character arch from puppet to puppet master admirably. Lady Macbeth, played by Lesley Bevan, who at first controls Macbeth through her sex appeal, has a sort of ethereal sexuality that would be better suited to the first witch, Dorcas Sowunmi; who in turn has the earthy, raw sexuality that we should see in Lady Macbeth. The witches in this production, though, are novel. There is a head witch, played by Sowunmi, who raises two fallen soldiers to become her companions, who in turn play a hand in the downfall of Macbeth in the court. This is a very nice touch. The music, mainly percussive, adds texture and depth to the performance, as well as a slight kabuki element to the fighting. Mike McNamara plays the part of Banquo remarkably well, with a humor to the character that brings more gravity – and he has the best costume. In fact, all the costumes were quite good, with the exception of Lady Macbeth’s first piece, which was out-of-place and sorely disappointing. Patrick Sarb’s Macduff is solid, but could do to learn that shouting is not the same as grief, and that seeming furious before Malcolm (Nicholas Harazin) tells him to turn his despair into anger may not be the best interpretation of the text.
Still, all said, I’m nitpicking: this is a solid piece, and, as I stated before, it achieves its goal. I’m not sure that Macbeth is a play that should be done in 75 minutes; but, if it is, I believe a stronger production would be hard to come by. And for kids and their parents – it’s fantastic.
At Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Navy Pier, Chicago, IL; call 312-595-5600 or visit www.chicagoshakes.com; tickets $16 for 18 & under, $20 otherwise, 11 am Saturdays through March 5.