Review by Kathleen Campion
This Macbeth is plenty of fun. Oh, sure, there is the fighting and dying, the scheming and screaming, regicide and madness—not to mention that “damned spot!” But this energetic company offers the Bard’s five acts in a seamless, well-paced ninety minutes that keep you on the edge of your comfortable chair. Whatever they excised from the original text goes unmourned here.
The Shiva Theater, one of the smaller of the five performance venues at Joe Papp’s Public Theater on Lafayette, puts the audience so close to the actors that you see them spit their words. There are more than a couple of mano a mano tussles convincingly executed in extremely tight quarters. Lady Macbeth and her feckless lord get very handsy and that’s fun. There is an enormous amount of movement. Eight actors strut on and off delivering more than thirty characters, as quick-change dressers and racks of costumes hover just off set. Three trunks spin into dining tables, cauldrons, and thrones. Three witches exude a compelling sexual madness with giddy charm. At the same time you are moved by remarkably spontaneous tears from both Macbeth and the queen—not cinematic drops, but tears.
Rob Campbell is well cast as the cocky Macbeth, managed into murder by his fiercely beguiling wife, Lady Macbeth (Jennifer Ikeda). Ikeda’s ferociousness in pushing Macbeth to kill the king is palpable; then, when things go terribly wrong, her madness is delicate. Campbell plays Macbeth as ‘fortune’s fool,” led about by the witches’ augury, then by his wife’s ambition. His madness is more disintegration.
Campbell looks you right in the eye. He makes the audience part of his court. The rest of the cast — busy with costume and character changes—are less available but still remarkably efficient.
A cast of many colors offers amusing opportunities, enriching the script as written while underscoring, the Elizabethan convention that freights a phrase with several tiers of meaning. For example, when Macbeth taunts a young soldier reporting to him of the battle outside, he looks into a decidedly brown face and taunts him (it’s actually a woman playing a soldier) for his peaked, blotchy, peachy skin. If Shakespeare had had these gender and racial options he would have gloried in them.
The Elizabethans kept the really gory stuff off-stage and sent messengers forward to announce slaughter and pillage. The Mobile Shakespeare Unit sticks to that convention, mostly, but at the eleventh hour offers up a marvelously gruesome gimmick that had hands-slapped-to-mouths all around me!
And that’s another thing, the audience surrounds the actors who enter and exit nearly brushing your sleeve. That proximity is exciting. Another plus is the lights are up, so you see your fellow audience members react as you would have at the Globe. They—The Mobile Shakespeare Unit—just get so much right.
It’s a good job the actors are on their mettle, as the evening begins with an exuberant young woman, Stephanie Ybarra, the Public’s Director of Special Projects and leader of the Mobile Unit, who’s been sent out to tell us what this “Mobile Shakespeare Unit” is about. She becomes the classic “tough act to follow” in that her enthusiasm for the project and her emersion in its impact completely disarm you. The Mobile Shakespeare Unit travels to prisons, homeless shelters, schools—anyplace they can offer up a slender, slightly contemporized, yet still authentic Shakespearian experience to unlikely, if captive, audiences. In a surprising way, imagining the kids, the prisoners, the homeless cadres watching what we are watching—puts this regular audience in the same full-of-wonder space.
Macbeth – by William Shakespeare; directed by Edward Torres
WITH:Rob Campbell (Macbeth), Keith Eric Chappelle (Banquo and others), Jennifer Ikeda (Lady Macbeth, First Witch and others), Nicole Lewis (Lady Macduff, Second Witch, and others), Teresa Avia Lim (Lennox, Third Witch, and others), Nick Mills (Ross and others), Daniel Pearce (Duncan, Macduff, and others), James Udom, Malcolm and others).
Designed by Wilson Chin, costumes by Amanda Seymour, Stage Manager Howard Tilkin, Composer Michael Thurber. Macbeth continues through June 7 at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street at Astor Place, East Village; 212-967-7555, publictheater.org. Running time 90 minutes no intermission.