The set-up: Shakespeare's shortest tragedy gets cut down to bite-size in this latest collaboration between Guy Roberts's Prague Shakespeare Company and Main Street Theater. Although Macbeth doesn't approach their panoplied Henry V or their gleefully malevolent rendition of Richard III, the result of such drastic pruning is, in its telling, still tasty and wondrously theatrical. But some of this marvelous play's sound and fury is curiously banked. What happened to the fire?
The execution: There's nothing unusual or sacrosanct about editing the great Bard. His work has been clipped, excised, bowdlerized, and rearranged since the days at the Globe; he did some editing himself, so scholars think. That's not the problem.
Plot wise, everything's in order, if quickly done. Ambitious Macbeth, a valiant soldier, is taunted by the Weird Sisters who foretell his future as King of Scotland. Goaded by his equally ambitious wife, he runs rampant through the kingdom, murdering anyone who stands in his way to the throne. Once king, he can not stop. Though besieged by his conscience, he must plow ahead. Pesky heirs - and their wives and innocent children -- must be dispatched, too.
Yet glory and power hold no allure, and his dark and bloody deeds ultimately do him in. Resigned like some contemporary existential hero, he goes down fighting, forfeiting his head. "I gin to be aweary of the sun," he confesses on his way to the final battle, as Birnam wood marches toward his castle at Dunsinane, "and wish the estate 'o the world were now undone."
Shakespeare overlays this blood-red, fast-galloping drama with darkness and Stygian gloom. Even when it's supposed to be daytime, clouds and mist cover the sun, owls screech, and chimneys tumble in windstorms. Violent nature becomes Macbeth's mind. Ripe with some of Shakespeare's most radiantly alive poetry, Macbeth romps forward, ever forward. Nothing stops its momentum. (Written as a panegyric for newly crowned James I, fresh from Scotland, who appropriated Shakespeare's theater company under his royal wing as The King's Company, Macbeth is chock-full of witchcraft, portents of doom, black-hearted deeds, relentless violence, a swirling undercurrent of sex and impotence, and a final blast of Scottish pride as the kingdom is made whole. Known to fall asleep during performances, James would have been wide-eyed during this play. Shakespeare knew his audience well.)
The prodigious Guy Roberts, artistic director of the Prague company, adapts, directs, and stars. Small and compact, he is a blazing Thane of Cawdor. Even without the ubiquitous pin spots, so adroitly conjured by lighting designer Joanna-Mai Vihalem, he catches the light.
Radiant, he makes Shakespeare's sometimes knotty prose immediately comprehensible. It's a unique gift. Macbeth plummets into the dark side, and Roberts illuminates every twisted pathway. He lets us bask in the terror, the frailty, of this once-good soldier who can not contain his vaunted ambition. Watch how his hands tremble while holding the daggers that he has just plunged into his esteemed King. When he describes his heart knocking against his ribs or his head full of scorpions, we really feel it. Staring at his hands now covered in blood ("Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood clean from my hand?"), Roberts makes us complicit in his deathly plots. He draws us into his heart of darkness. Chilling.
Caparisoned in gauzy black cape and Elizabethan stomacher, Jessica Boone looks stunning as a goth Lady Macbeth, but she lacks ardor. The spark's gone out of this couple. There's no sexy frisson between them. She provocatively straddles her husband's leg, but they could be brother and sister for the chaste kiss they give each other. Her famous "unsex me now" monologue, where she spurs the unseen spirits to screw up her courage for the bloodbath to come, falls limp. This murderous husband and wife tag team is one-sided. Later in her classic "sleeping walking" scene ("Out, out, damned spot..."), she comes alive, but it's too late. Macbeth must carry on by himself.
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Jeff Smith's Banquo is solid; Jared Doreck's Malcolm is loud; Peter Hosking's Duncan is doddering; and Charles Frederick Secrease's Macduff is appropriately over-the-top. Adding their own chill, the nine Witches, who hiss and whisper in the background throughout the play (taking a few lines from characters who have been dropped), increase the mystery and eeriness. They're so omnipresent, the whole business seems to take place in their subconscious.
On the intimate Main Street stage, Macbeth and his demons are up-close and personal. Eleni Podara's set and costume designs are minimal and homespun - hints of the military in jeans and padded vests; with plexiglass boxes placed on the cardinal compass points into which broadswords are impaled. One of the boxes is crammed with skulls.
The verdict: Macbeth's haunting tale is replete with ghosts, specters, wild imaginings, and masterful psychological insight. There's no play quite like it. Roberts's telling, quick and unsubtle, speeds along, hits the highlights, yet manages to distill the play's essence. We're not moved quite as much as we should be, but, like James I, we're not lulled to sleep either. Prague, Main Street, and especially Shakespeare see to that.
Through March 9. Main Street Theater, 2540 Times Boulevard. (David Wald and Bree Welch enact the murderous duo on the evening of March 5, and the evening of March 9.) Purchase tickets online at www.mainstreettheater.com or call 713-524-6706. $20 - $39.