The question hanging over any adaptation—and Mac Beth, though almost entirely made up of Shakespeare’s original words, can certainly be considered an adaptation—is a simple “why?” Why adapt? What will the collision of old words with new staging, new ideas, or new play worlds add to our experience of the original text? The echo heard by adapter and director Erica Schmidt between Lady Macbeth’s “one, two, why then, ‘tis time to do’t” and “we really did go on three,” the Twitter post by a West Virginia high school girl shortly after she and another girl stabbed their friend in 2012, offers compelling inspiration and yet doesn’t quite deliver.
Ostensibly, in Schmidt’s take on Macbeth, a group of high school girls have gathered in an “empty lot outside the city” to rehearse the play, but the rehearsal scenario never really comes through. There are occasional references to acquiring the “toe of frog” for the witches brew from the “science lab,” messages are conveyed by smart phone, and the Macbeths’ “banquet” features Solo cups and Cheetos, but the effect is more that the characters of the girls and the characters of Shakespeare’s play are equally present—sometimes in a total overlap, other times flickering towards one or the other. This carries both dramaturgical problems and rewards.
The basic concept alone seems to free up the play and at a tidy 100 minutes it clips along nicely. Teenage inflections reinvigorate certain lines grown rigid from centuries of performance, and by borrowing from high school group dynamics the distinct characteristics of each of the three witches—there in the text, but too often subsumed into homogenous creepiness—are entertainingly apparent (credit is owed Annasophia Robb, Sophie Kelly-Hedrick, and Sharlene Cruz for their sharp characterizations). Voltaire famously objected to Shakespeare’s tasteless mingling of comedy and tragedy and this production also refreshingly allows the comedic aspects of the play their full worth. Inspiration seemingly drawn from teen-horror flicks such as a truly zombie-esque dead Banquo (Ayana Workman) work remarkably well. King Duncan reimagined as a charmingly hyper-confident teen, as played by Cruz, adds appeal to a character that can easily be reduced to a mere plot point.
And yet, none of these happy effects manage to justify the adaptation on a deeper level. The desire to underscore the undeniably interesting treatment of gender in the play by replacing the original all-male company with an all-young-women one succeeds in a sense—I certainly heard each and every line that touched on gender, strength, and power, but often, if not always, because of its awkwardness—the inability of the production to really address it. That Shakespeare’s text frequently underscores the fact that women must attach themselves to men in order to access power at all is one of the truly remarkable aspects of his work, as are those scenes where the men struggle to reconcile human feeling with so-called strength and action (and it is no stretch to find contemporary relevance in either theme). But the hierarchies that teenage girls must negotiate, while vicious, are non-gendered—they take place within the power structures the girls themselves have created. Certain touches—strewing tampons on the stage—only made me cringe; a too self-conscious and immature pretense at embracing the realities of the female experience.
When the production delivers on its promise of falling into the true-crime like scenario of murderous teen girls, it is momentarily shocking, and then loses power, dragging on too long and opening itself up to flaws in its dramatic logic. This should be the production’s final pay-off, but all sense of the stakes of human tragedy has dissipated. I felt little emotion towards either Macbeth or Beth.
This is despite some superb performances. The ensemble (young, though not as young as their metatheatrical characters) are excellent. They are equally comfortable squealing or offering scathing deadpan in true teen fashion as they are with Shakespeare’s meaty text (with the exception of some excessive shouting, which tends to rather obscure than enhance emotion). Their athleticism adds to the energy and impact of the production and there is fantastic ensemble work on show. Isabelle Fuhrman as Macbeth and Ismenia Mendes as Lady Macbeth carry the leads well, and the rest of the cast take on multiple roles with aplomb. Macduff is the only character that perhaps falls slightly flat; I suspect this is no fault of Lily Santiago’s performance, but of the direction of the piece as a whole—the frenzied comedic energy leaves little space for Macduff’s most affecting moment—the discovery of the murders of his wife and children. This is a loss to both the character and to the play itself; what Mac Beth gains in comedy, it loses in pathos.
Visually, the production is appealing. Catherine Cornell’s set is suitably atmospheric; the muddy grass, water pools, overturned couch, and abandoned path evokes the “urban wasteland” where the girls meet, while also providing a rich playing space for their supposed rehearsal to come to life. Jessica Pabst’s costumes cleverly allow traditional school uniforms to suggest the kilts and cloaks of by-gone Scotland—tartan is, of course, natural to both. Well-selected pop-music by Erin Bednarz similarly works to simultaneously reinforce the teenage characterization and to musically heighten the drama of certain scenes. Lighting by Jeff Croiter and an impressive rain effect amp the dark and moody tone up even further.
But this all feels frustratingly like so much skill and talent wasted. Maybe if Schmidt had taken her adaptation deeper into the world of the disturbed young women who inspired it, a more profound understanding or sense of tragedy would have emerged. As it is, the treatment of their story feels flippant, and the treatment of Shakespeare’s unnecessary—entertaining on some levels, but ultimately pointless. Rather than heighten the emotional stakes, the two layers of this adaptation end up cancelling each other out, and it falls disappointingly into the world of gimmickry.