Shakespeare’s full of irredeemably evil characters—ones who are of villain stock down to the marrow, the Iagos and Don Johns—and characters who stumble through their misfortune into darkness, fighting and flailing against a “sea of troubles,” as Hamlet would say. Certainly Macbeth has both—Lady Macbeth, with her seemingly intrinsic wickedness, and the titular hero, with his string of tragic misadventures. But, arguably, more so than the other tragedies—even with Julius Caesar’s prophetic warnings of the ides of March—Macbeth presents magic and horror, creating a character out of fate. Even the greatest interpretations of Macbeth must necessarily shrink before this omnipotent figure, an amalgamation of the three witches, a moving forest, and an impossible man not “of woman born,” all of which bring him to his demise.
In the opening scene of Classic Stage Company’s current production, the players all deliver the witches’ dialogue in unison. These witches are legion, and fate is inescapable, speaking through the mouths of these various figures all the same. In a flurry of entrances, the actors rush the stage, abruptly run on and off in exit, and with this choral prophecy and the bustle of bodies, the production begins.
What this Macbeth appears to offer from the onset is an appropriate dose of drama. The set, by David L. Arsenault, channels the dark and dire dressings of a Game of Thrones episode: all dark wood, with a long, extended platform stage that juts forward toward the audience, an ominous-looking throne, backed with unevenly set wooden planks, in the center. Solomon Weisbard’s lighting design, scrutinizing stark white lights that often spotlight the throne and the action before it with the harshness of a light from a police interrogation scene, similarly feeds the portentous atmosphere. But for all the drama in the text and in the setup of the production, this Macbeth suffers from a case of uneven direction.
Real-life couple Corey Stoll and Nadia Bowers take on the roles of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, though each seems to inhabit their own separate orbit in the performance. Stoll’s Macbeth is contemporary, his cadence stripped of the ornate rhythms of Shakespeare to a casual pace. This is Macbeth as Joe Schmo, any ole guy who gets tangled up in forces greater than him and ultimately falls under the force of his ambition. Except ambition is exactly what’s missing here. Stoll’s performance of Macbeth is so easy that it leans toward the pedestrian, and there’s no force behind the train of Macbeth’s rise and tragic fall. Stoll presents a likeable Macbeth, curiously (and engagingly), but that result is more an effect of the actor’s own sensibility shining through. Stoll reads as an entertainer, so his Macbeth is funny, full of shrugs, deadpan one-liners, temper tantrums, and middle fingers bared to fate. But all of this sucks away the character’s gravitas as he nears the end; “I have supp’d full of horrors,” he says, almost bored, in the final act, before the famous “sound and fury” speech. Instead of sound and fury, we get barren pauses and indifference. The great monologue of all of those tomorrows is rendered sleepily, with strangely slow, disjointed syncopation, as though the saying of each syllable is its own monumental act of labor. Shouldn’t Macbeth be a bit more affected, or at least vaguely interested, in his own statement of existential despair?
On the other end of the spectrum is Bowers’ Lady Macbeth, performed with a more traditional flair. Bowers’ Lady Macbeth is arch to the point of being a villain from an animated Disney movie (think Cruella De Vil, finally sick of chasing Dalmatians, now obsessed with a different kind of spot). This Lady Macbeth brims with sexual energy, and Bowers delivers her lines slyly, with a husky voice that slinks between seduction and cold, denigrating judgement. She has her own laugh lines too, though her moments of dominance are most engrossing. (“Screw your courage to the sticking-place,” she demands of Macbeth, and it’s difficult to imagine him doing anything else.) But the lord and lady of the manor, placed together, feel incohesive, situated at opposite ends of a spectrum of extremes, from Stoll’s languishing Macbeth to Bowers’ overcharged Lady Macbeth. In their clashes, particularly when the production plays up the comic lines, the power couple becomes demoted to a cartoon crime duo, a Pinky and the Brain pairing wherein Lady Macbeth is the impatient brainiac tasked with babysitting her meek dolt of a partner.
But this imbalance is also indicative of a larger one in the show: Doyle’s direction creates an oddly Janus-faced Macbeth. The comedic lines are surprising—delights, really—but they come at the expense of the drama. It’s a tricky feat to pull off, and Doyle has livened the text in a way that makes it feel more contemporary, but the risk is cheapening the show’s stakes and having the rest become part of the joke, which it sometimes does.
The fight scenes (by Thomas Schall) are hit or miss. The final faceoff, between Macbeth and Macduff, feels painfully cheesy, with more huffs, grunts, and lumbering around than believable blows. But the scene in which Macbeth murders Macduff’s wife and children lands with more heft. (N’Jameh Camara, in a brief role as a firm and strong Lady Macduff, nevertheless anchors the scene before its turn to tragedy.)
The rest of the cast performs ably, though not always memorably. Erik Lochtefeld’s Banquo is an amiable match for Stoll’s Macbeth, while Mary Beth Peil, as a genderbent Duncan, exudes regal solemnity. Barzin Akhavan struggles to bring a comparable sense of significance to his Macduff, a hair too flimsy in his grief and quest for retribution. Doyle’s direction best accents the position of the throne, as the characters maneuver around it and bodies slump before its seat, and the production leans toward a sense of urgency that is never comfortably maintained, despite the sudden rush of stage action and parades of hooded figures waxing prophetic.
The costume design, by Ann Hould-Ward, keeps things solemn with unsmiling blacks and greys and utilitarian boots—though also provides a fussy accessory in the form of giant cloaks in dark tartans and forest greens. The effect, as the actors stand statuesquely in the background of scenes, is the creation of the figures as kinds of set pieces, reminiscent of the “living” forest of Birnam Wood, but the appearance is otherwise unwieldy, as though Shakespeare’s great figures had just risen from nap time, blankets trailing in their wake.
The gift of this production, even where it struggles, is how it still revels in all of the options that Shakespeare’s most popular works provide. A tragedy reworked as a tragi-comedy grants the show its own particular flair. Though it’s never as consistently great as its best moments, it’s also never as bad as its worst, and what’s left is still worth all of its (double, double) toil and trouble.