A few weeks ago, I told a friend that I planned to never see Macbeth again. I have nothing against Shakespeare’s great supernatural tragedy — on the contrary, it’s been a favorite since my high-school English days. But it’s staged so often that I feel like I’ve seen every possible gloss on the material that directors have to offer.
Yet somehow, Roundabout Theatre Company’s world premiere of Scotland, PA snuck in through the side door.
Or, I should say, it slipped like a greasy burger through a drive-thru window. Adam Gwon and Michael Mitnick’s clever, tuneful adaptation of Billy Morrissette’s 2001 indie film transports Birnam Wood to the backwoods of Pennsylvania, and Dunsinane becomes a 1970s fast-food joint. Gwon’s score samples era-defining notes of easy listening, classic rock, and country, which matches the aesthetic feel created by Anna Louizos’ retro set design and Tracy Christensen’s groovy polyester costumes. And like a super-sized combo meal served with a thick shake on the side, it’s simultaneously delicious and dangerous.
Dangerous might be an overstatement, as the musical lacks the vital terror of Shakespeare and the gritty cheekiness of the source film. But Gwon, Mitnick, and director Lonny Price avoid a Broadway-style overdose of slickness, and smart central performances from Ryan McCartan and Taylor Iman Jones detail their characters’ gradual mental deterioration in ways that seem familiar and surprising. In terms of complete musical theater acting, they give two of the strongest performances in recent memory.
Credit for that strength deserves to be shared. Many read Macbeth as a tale of ruthlessness and comeuppance, neglecting the feeling of tragic folly at its heart. The audience should always sense that one pivot could save the hapless couple at its center from their impending doom. That sense permeates Price’s staging, where we meet Mac (McCartan) and Pat (Jones) as longtime employees Duncan’s Burgers, barely scraping by in a rural trailer park. Mac is devoted to Duncan (Jeb Brown, at once cartoonish and appropriately imperious), even as his boss hurls reams of abuse and rejects Mac’s ideas out of hand. (According to this musical, Mac is responsible for inventing chicken nuggets, donut holes, and the fast-food fish sandwich — talk about business acumen!).
A final indignity at Duncan’s hands tips the scale and…well, you know the rest. Or do you? Price manages to keep the action inventive and interesting even as the story hits its expected beats, and Mitnick’s libretto avoids too many cutesy analogies to Shakespeare’s verse. (Don’t expect to hear anyone saying “Is this a spatula that I see before me?” or “Out, out damned spot of ketchup.”) Most interestingly, the lack of calculation in Mac and Pat’s decision to depose Duncan registers as a reflection of their sorry state of life, which has been stuck in perpetual arrested development since their teenage years. These are not criminal masterminds; their ultimate action seems like a combination of luck and fate, both of which have a tendency to change on a dime.
That sense of cosmic karma manifests itself in “Destiny,” a song reprised throughout the musical by three resident stoners, who stand in for the Weird Sisters and furnish Mac with even more incomprehensible premonitions. As performed by the big-voiced trio of Alysha Umphress, Wonu Ogunfowora, and Kaleb Wells, they stop the show regularly — not just with their dynamic harmonies but with their sharp comic timing. Umphress, in particular, knows how to exhale a plume of smoke that matches the panache of a perfectly executed punchline, and Josh Rhodes furnishes the group with distinctive, humorous choreography.
The production is long on memorable supporting turns, from Jay Armstrong Johnson’s hapless, sympathetic Banko — a local loser whose goofy exterior belies deep emotional torment — to Will Meyers’ insouciant Malcolm, who wants nothing to do with his father’s burger-flipping legacy. (Meyers’ performance benefits from having the score’s single best number, “Why I Love Football,” which includes a sly redirect of our understanding of his character.) Megan Lawrence appears in the second act as Detective Peg McDuff, a hard-boiled vegetarian policewoman intent on bringing Mac and Pat down. She lends a knowingly camp take on police procedural acting to her wiry, uproariously funny performance.
The second act moves a touch too briskly, especially after the relatively steady unspooling of the first. Mac and Pat go from singing “Clairvoyant,” an infectiously pop-inflected earworm about their blazing love, to their relative deteriorations at breakneck speed. I would have liked more time spent on their downfall, which happens rapidly. Yet McCartan and Jones still manage to convey just how tenuous the couple’s grasp on power always was, and each is gifted with a solo number that they deliver to shattering effect.
Pat’s “Bad Dream,” which mirrors Lady Macbeth’s famous sleepwalking scene, is doubly affecting because Jones has always seemed far more rueful than ruthless. She and McCartan’s Mac form a duo that you want to root for up until they reach the point of no return, and that sympathy drives the pathos of their unraveling. McCartan’s ultimately shows us a man who is crushed by his own sense of regret — someone who only wanted a simple, unremarkable life, but who gave into the pressures of a culture that told him repeatedly that he should strive for more.
Scotland, PA ends, like Macbeth, with the suggestion that the cycle of violence it portrays will repeat again and again. No doubt it will, just as directors and adapters will continue to mine Shakespeare for new interpretations to fit contemporary frames. This musical gives me hope that when it comes to the Bard’s well-trod canon, there still might be a lot left to say.