‘Macbeth’ With Machine Guns

Macbeth, STCAs investigations into Russian influence on U.S. elections continue, here’s a development that has so far eluded Rachel Maddow: They may have also been behind the witches in “Macbeth.”

So says a modern day version of Bard’s classic at the Shakespeare Theatre Company from inventive director Liesl Tommy.

Tommy was the first woman of color to get a Tony Nomination for best director for “Eclipsed” with Lupita Wyong’o and she’s been tapped to stage Disney’s huge Broadway version of its hit “Frozen.”

And in a “Macbeth” that she says she’s tailored particularly for D.C. at this moment, one of the first things heard is one of the “weird sisters” inquiring on a cell phone, “When again shall we three meet again?” as if arranging a clandestine gathering.

Other times, this same witch is on the side of the stage in headphones and computer equipment, monitoring the going’s on behind the murderous reign of the leader they helped install — in much the way current leaders baselessly imagines his predecessor wiretapped him.

The whole “eye of newt” speech comes as if a twisted TED talk, where the “toe of frog, wool of bat and tongue of dog’ may be deep cover nicknames of operatives shown. These witches have the swagger (and insignia) of a black ops CIA, with cases of money, drugs and gold to manipulate results. They take their orders from a Hectate with a definite Russian accent.

For more than 400 years now, “Macbeth” has been used for pointed political commentary; a half century ago it was for the LBJ-sniping  “MacBird!”

The new work builds on Danny’s origins in apartheid-era South Africa, with the chaos of guns, soldiers and scurrying refugees indicating the often messy regime changes in the sub-Saharan continent.

Despite the jaunty berets, modern military garb and weapons for soldiers and leaders alike, Danny sticks with the original Elizabethan text; even with the action echoing Africa, its continues to tell of the battles of Northern Europe and Scandinavia.

In addition to more people of color in the production, Danny’s “Macbeth” also features more women in positions of power as well, from soldiers to the the play’s first victim, Duncan, now the Queen of Scotland (Petronia Paley). That takes away some of the pressure off of Nikkole Salter as the sole woman in the spotlight, who would otherwise take blame for inflaming the murderous ambition. As Lady Macbeth, she enters wearing her headscarf as if already a crown  (and Harvard T shirt). She seems more caught up in the whirlwind of ambition than engineering it sinisterly on her own.

As the titular character, Jesse J. Perez seems a little surprised, too, at his rise in stature following his return from battle, and dazed by how much higher he can go. Perez presents his Macbeth as full of humanity Many of his speeches become soliloquies as action around him momentarily freezes. Still, there’s barely time amid the action to stir up the kind of pathos one expects from the role, though he reels dazedly at the dinner party where the ghost of a dead Banquo (McKinley Belcher III) haunts him. More surprisingly, Perez will throw in an occasional flash of humor, raising an eyebrow as if this were George Jefferson on his way up.

One definite high point of comic relief comes from Myra Lucretia Taylor’s Porter; she’s all business when she returns later as doctor. There is also some outspoken rage from Marcus Naylor’s Macduff following the slaughter of his wife and child (Nilanjana Bose and Trinity Sky Deabreu), an operation that involves gasoline and tires.

John Coyne’s set is a marvel — criss crossed with fluorescent light tubes to mark off space; the stone wall behind is cracked with a vein of gold, not so much to show inward riches but an internal crack. Perez’ Macbeth is riding high when he rides onstage in a shiny Jaguar. But during intermission, a stage crew dressed as soldiers furiously scrub the blood from the raked floor; out damn spot indeed).

Broken Chord’s music is fitting the spectacle; the fight direction from Rick Sordelet and Christian Kelly-Sordelet is particularly good.

Loathe to cut the text, the director adds time to the play with nonverbal moments of song, elegy or occasional modern-day ad-lib. Hence, one of Shakespeare’s shortest history plays gains time with the modern setting.

 

“Macbeth” continues through May 28 at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, Washington D.C.

 

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