Under the category of things we’ve never seen before onstage in Houston, I present:
1. A hockey glove and an oven mitt having rambunctious doggy-style sex
2. Paper plate father and son playing catch, running piggyback and affectionately horsing around
3. Raw eggs that provoke feelings of parental sweetness and abject horror.
These wildly anthropomorphic elements, along with equally creative human performances are all a part of Macbeth Muet, a 50-minute, utterly silent (Muet means mute in French) and succinctly comprehensive telling of The Scottish Play by the Montreal company, La Fille Du Laitier. Brought to us here in Houston by Main Street Theater.
It’s no secret that as a transplant from north of the border, I cheer with boosterish pride every time a Canadian show gets an airing in town. But trust me, it’s not patriotism when I say that Macbeth Muet is one of the most original, clever, funny, intense, and just bloody entertaining (pun intended) shows I’ve seen in years.
It’s all performed by Clara Prévost Dubé and Jérémie Francoeur on a set adorned with only a cloth-covered table and two garbage cans. As the blood spills (and there is a glorious amount of it in this production) and the deaths rack up in Shakespeare’s tragedy, it’s revealed that the layers of cloth are numerous, much like ingenious table coverings seen in Dim Sum restaurants. What better way to switch from bloody scene to bloody scene then to whisk away the messy layers, dump them in the trash, and start anew?
The two agile, remarkably expressive performers, spend most of the show standing behind that table, seen only from the waist up, as they wordlessly play all the characters. In human form, they are Lady M and Macbeth himself. Hair back in buns, donning ghostly white-washed faces, the pair performs a combination of mime, dance, slapstick, and athletics that illustrate the Macbeths’ bond, ambition, violence, eventual madness
To play the supporting characters, Dubé and Francoeur employ puppets of sorts - the paper plate is Banquo, the hockey glove, MacDuff a large King playing card, Duncan. Hand gestures reminiscent of Thing from The Adam’s Family scurry across the table standing in for armies and the legs of characters. Eggs show up as the children the Macbeths never had and the litter the Macduffs produced. Black chatterbox origami fortune tellers (the kind we used to play with as kids) stand in for the witches and candelabras for Birnam Woods.
No scene lasts for more than a minute or two at most and is signaled by the sound of a bell at beginning and end. With no wing to walk into or desire to black out the lights every minute or so, Dubé and Francoeur do the quirky yet highly affecting thing between scenes and simply sink down behind the table, blank-faced and evoking a kind of quicksand/TV tube flip effect.
The remarkable physical performances and simple yet evocative puppets are enough to make this show something special. Add in the sound design that accompanies nearly the entire production and this show tips into multi-dimensional pleasure. Originally designed by Jon Lachlan and in Houston engineered by Jacob Sanchez, the action of Macbeth Muet is accompanied by a combination of terrific ambient and purposeful audio creations, but it’s the use of song snippets that really catch our attention.
One of the biggest gifts of the show is the three prologues we get, giving us insight into the Macbeths’, Banquos’ and Macduffs’ courtship, marriage and child situation. Head Over Heels by Tears for Fears, is the soundtrack to the couples falling in love, classical music marks the wedding, heavy metal or some kind of pounding electronica is the backdrop to the couples’ urgent and hilarious sex life. Perfect choices in every respect. As are all the song cues. Macbeth kills Duncan to It’s Oh So Quiet by Betty Hutton (or Björk), Banquo plays with his son to the tune of Will Smith’s, Just the Two of Us, and Simon and Garfunkel’s, Sound of Silence, plays as Lady M takes her madness to suicide.
These songs make us laugh at the juxtaposition of classical text with modern-ish music but that’s just another stroke of brilliance in this production. The ability to tickle us and then to suddenly turn things terribly disturbing, leaving us stunned and silent. It’s a roller coaster, but one that thrills all our senses and never leaves us woozy from the pace of the loops and turns.
So, what about those that aren’t perfectly fluent with Macbeth, without dialogue to guide them, is it possible to follow the action? Yes and no.
On the yes side, silence doesn’t mean the show is wordless. Written words do appear (creatively of course) in the form of paper towel scene titles, witchy words on unfolded origami or handheld signs that explain why it is that MacDuff is not of woman born. In other words, the crucial and more complicated plot points are shown to us in clear written terms.
But even with these, it would be advisable to at least skim through a quick synopsis of the play beforehand or risk missing out on the more subtle moments that leave many in the audience roaring with laughter or sucking in air with dread.
The pleasure of the audience the eve I attended was that it was full of local actors, all of whom one assumes were either perfectly familiar with the text or themselves have played the roles at some point. To listen to them cackling with delight and sitting up poker straight with concentrated emotion was yet another testament to the power of this short, mute show that speaks volumes.
And ultimately that’s the success of the show. The speaking volumes part. Yes, it’s funny and yes it’s clever and sure the bare bones weird puppet and paper carnage thing is unique.
But really, what makes Macbeth
Such is the power of Shakespeare, that even if you take away his soul-combusting language, the power of his ideas and characters remains. Macbeth Muet strips the story down to the most guttural and intimate emotions and as such, touches emotional inroads that we might have thought were lost after so many viewings of this narrative.
Now you know I can’t end this review without giving one more shout out to Canada, so I’ll frame it in a way that Houstonians can relate to. When it comes to Canadian theater, specifically French Canadian efforts, the one example folks here know of and have seen is Cirque du Soleil. Obviously different than Macbeth Muet in scale but similar in important methodologies. Both are wordless. Both are moodily evocative. Both anthropomorphize as a way to draw people in. Both rely heavily on music. Both vacillate between hilarious moments and more sedate/heavy-hearted episodes. And both blow our minds with techniques and methods of storytelling we haven’t been exposed to before.
That Macbeth Muet is onstage at Main Street Theater is a testament to the possibility forecasting of Artistic Director Rebecca Greene Udden. If marketed correctly, this show will surely bring in a more diverse and younger audience than Main Street traditionally attracts with its beautifully performed/more traditional offerings. It’s a bold but savvy move for the company, one I hope pays off for all involved handsomely.
And one that you need to get off your butts and go and see. NOW! And in totally Un-Canadian fashion, I’m not even one bit sorry for ordering you around when it comes to this play. So there, eh?