It’s always an adventure sitting down to watch Shakespeare. Where will this production send its viewers? To what time period or country? Will it be set in a fast-food restaurant or trying to stay as close to a traditional production as possible? The Dzieci Theatre company has taken a risk with its recent production of Makbet, a gypsy-infused performance of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, directed by Matt Mitler. The play is presented in a shipping container in the back of a junkyard in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Although it is an uncomfortable place to ask audience members to sit, the underlit and claustrophobic quarters alert the audience immediately to the darkness of the play.
As viewers arrive, they are greeted by boisterous and happy actors. All are immersed in their roles, sing rambunctiously, and in thick accents (from where is unclear), they ask the audience members to take shots of vodka as they are ushered to the plastic crates that serve as seats. Then the actors begin to tell you the “rules of engagement.” Among them: there will only be three actors (Megan Bones, Yvonne Brechbuhler and Mitler) performing all the roles in the play, and they will switch characters in every scene.
In order to tell who plays whom, several of the major speaking roles are identified by a costume element. For example, Macbeth will wear a fancy hat, Lady Macbeth a red cape, and Malcolm a pair of glasses. Then bang!—the door of the shipping container shuts, the space is pitch-black, except for a few small lights, and the performance starts. The actors begin singing loudly, pounding on the walls and on instruments, apparently in hopes of creating some type of ritualistic opening, when it’s just really loud.
As the first few scenes unwind, it becomes clear the 90-minute production is going to feel much longer. The choice to have three actors play all the characters becomes in practice chaotic. Any viewer who is unfamiliar with Macbeth will probably have no idea what is going on. Transitions from character to character happen too quickly and are done sloppily, and it is impossible to follow any character’s story.
The actors have not individualized the characters, but rather play one character saying the lines of every character, and even the accents faded over time. With no character feeling like a real person, their journeys are completely lost. There is no difference in Macbeth and Lady Macbeth before they kill Duncan and after. The weight of their fears does not grow; the love they have for each other is only demonstrated by groping physical actions, not because the actors themselves have given life to the relationship, and it stays flat.
Miller also ignores some impractical aspects of this adaptation. For example, after Macbeth and Lady Macbeth kill Duncan and both have blood on their hands, they decide to touch every wall, the floor, each other’s clothes—they smear blood everywhere. It’s unlikely that the guilty would want to clean up blood from all over their room, nor leave a pile of blood-stained laundry that might arouse suspicion in the morning.
Mitler’s pacing of the performance is also disjointed. Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s quickest-moving plays because it builds and builds in energy, tension and urgency. The Dzieci cast seems to savor too many of the delicious lines, giving equal weight to every word. Each scene moves slowly and at the same speed as before, losing the attention of the audience and the energy of the play. The actors work way too hard yelling, crying, whispering and flailing about the stage, making the simple verse difficult to follow.
The music in the production is all sung a cappella by the cast. They sing together to signify the beginning and end of the play, and any scene they want to give weight to. Although the singing may reflect Dzieci’s mission statement of being “dedicated to a search for the ‘sacred through the medium of theatre,’” there is too much of it, and it takes the audience out of the story.
By the end of the performance, it feels like a miracle to be let out of the hot and stuffy theater container to breathe fresh air. It is amazing how many places theater can be performed, and Dzieci takes an unusual space and turns it into a stage. A shipping container may not be the most enjoyable venue to watch theater, yet Dzieci has made a bold choice in presenting its Makbet this way, in spite of the confused production.
The Dzieci Theatre’s production of Shakespeare’s Makbet runs through Oct. 8 at Bushwick's Sure We Can (219 McKibbin St., Brooklyn). Thursdays through Saturdays at 7 p.m. and Sundays at 4 p.m. For tickets and information, visit dziecitheatre.ticketspice.com/makbet.