Red Bull Theater’s new production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth—restyled Mac Beth and originally staged at the Seattle Repertory Theatre—is an exciting theatrical experience that injects fresh energy and immediacy into the oft-performed and oft-read play. It strikes a good balance between faithfulness and innovation, and its central conceit never feels like an interpretive fad or a new-for-the-sake-of-new device.
The conceit is a play within a play: Macbeth is performed by a group of “schoolgirls” who meet in an abandoned field. In Erica Schmidt’s adaptation (she also directed), this is set up without any fuss: the girls arrive and dive immediately and passionately into their characters. The costumes, designed by Jessica Pabst, are school uniforms (blazer, skirt, blouse, tie) and hooded capes that are deployed in various creative ways. All the props come from the girls’ own backpacks or purses. Set designer Catherine Cornell has converted the thrust stage into a derelict field of overgrown weeds, a turned-over sofa, a bathtub, a tire, and a wooden plank over a hole filled with water.
As the opening of Schmidt’s script indicates, “The playing style is modern, quick, unaffected—the girls never pretend to be boys—they are, however, fully committed and present in the stakes of the characters they inhabit.” Mac Beth moves at a breakneck pace, facilitated by well-executed movement and staging (the movement coordinator is Lorenzo Pisoni). While the speed, combined with that “modern, unaffected” style, means that the audience can’t luxuriate in the play’s extraordinary poetry, the language is for the most part handled with colloquial clarity.
A cast of seven takes on all the characters, with the three actors who play the Weird Sisters (Annasophia Robb, Sophie Kelly-Hedrick, Sharlene Cruz) performing a number of roles each. (This has the benefit of heightening the presence of the witches throughout the play.) The audience is never allowed to forget that they are watching a group of schoolgirls playing Macbeth, and the actors are thus able to make the play deeply moving on two levels: as Shakespeare’s tragedy itself, and in the teenage girls’ mutual empowerment in taking on a work that is so much about masculinity. The girls never leave the stage but sit at the back as active spectators when their character is offstage—emoting, laughing, or cheering on their classmates. If the set is meant to conjure “an urban wasteland,” this coming together in performance feels like something hopeful amid the blight, despite the violent subject matter. But this sense of togetherness is undercut by a twist ending that opts for shock and cynicism, though it doesn’t seriously mar the production as a whole.
The ensemble is generally strong, though special mention should be made of Ismenia Mendes’s remarkable Lady Macbeth. Mendes both conjures a nuanced, fully realized Lady Macbeth and allows the adolescent energy of her character to shine through when, for example, she shrieks with delight and squirms on the ground while reading a letter from Macbeth (Isabelle Fuhrman). Other standout performances include Ayana Workman as Banquo and Lily Santiago as Macduff.
In its drive to be fun as well as serious, this production is able to bring out some of the play’s latent comedy. At every production of Macbeth I’ve seen, the audience laughs awkwardly during the banquet scene, when Macbeth is railing at Banquo’s ghost, mostly due to Lady Macbeth’s attempts at explanation. Here the scene is played as explicitly comedic and it works wonderfully. Other moments of comedy rely on the schoolgirls’ own characters breaking through the world of Macbeth: at Macbeth’s coronation they dance and sing to Beyoncé’s “Bow Down,” which plays through an iPhone speaker.
In order to avoid spoiling what is intended to shock, I won’t describe the disappointing ending. It diminishes the revelatory solidarity achieved among the schoolgirls, even as they don’t shy away from the conflicts and violence among their Shakespearean characters. As Shakespeare critic Kiernan Ryan has written, Macbeth “is the tragedy of a man torn apart and destroyed by the conflicting conceptions of masculinity at war within him. But it’s also a tragedy that glimpses beyond that conflict the prospect of humanity’s liberation from the destructive male fantasies that still plague it and threaten its survival.” Until its ending, this production is able to capture both the tragedy and that glimpse of liberation beyond it.
Mac Beth runs through June 9 at the Lucille Lortel Theatre (121 Christopher St). Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, and 8 p.m. on Thursday through Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. on Saturday and 3 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets are available by calling (212) 352-3101 or visiting redbulltheater.com.