By Sarah Downs
Get thee to Hunter College to see Mac Beth. Writer and Director Erica Schmidt has done a rare and wonderful thing – she has recontextualized a well known play – perhaps the best known play ever – in a way that illuminates rather than exploits. Inspired by true stories of the cruelty of preadolescent girls, Schmidt has reset the infamous Scottish Play at a private girls’ school. The passion and hyper-emotionality of prepubescent girls, whose capacity to live in a world of fantasy reaches its apotheosis right at that cusp between childhood and adolescence, is a daring lens through which to revisit Shakespeare’s dark tale of choice and consequence.
Schmidt handles the material beautifully. She has made excellent choices in her curation of the text and modernization of the action. From cell phones and backpacks to red plastic cups and umbrellas, each prop carries meaning. The detail of the direction and production design is phenomenal. Moody lighting by Jeff Croiter hovering over Catherine Cornell’s set, a grassy clearing in a forest, bring the outdoors indoors. That plus two eccentric multipurpose set pieces invoke the four Elements, in yet another reflection of the archetypal nature of the play. This production operates on countless levels at once.
This is not a familiar resetting of a classic where the point is a self-conscious role reversal of women playing male roles; it’s a play where young women act out roles from a narrative that originated among men, but which makes total sense in the context of a group of 12-year old girls. It becomes their story.
The cast is excellent, chief among them Brittany Bradford as Macbeth, whose pride turns to possession in the brief time between learning he is the new Thane of Cawdor to battling recklessly with any and all who would stand in his way. Bradford possesses a wonderful stillness that makes Macbeth’s indecent descent into desperate action all the more stunning. As Banquo, Ayana Workman has a dramatic presence that belies her delicate build. Your eyes are drawn to her every time she steps onstage. Her line readings are fresh and funny, her serious moments restrained.
In the daunting role of Lady MacBeth, Ismenia Mendes goes all in, shooting out sparks as she eggs her husband on, shaming him Into doing her bidding. Her mad remorse is chilling. Silky voiced Camila Canó-Flaviá, as the elder statesman MacDuff, moves with grace and gravitas, restoring order. A quartet of gifted actresses round out the cast. Sharlene Cruz, Dylan Gelula, Imani Jade Powers, and Sophie Kelly-Hedrick play myriad roles with dizzying speed, dashing around the stage like sprites in a perpetual game of tag.
The whirlwind of elemental emotions, actions and sensory stimuli drive us to the expected, yet completely unexpected climax. Schmidt does not shy away from the physical and emotional violence. Macbeth is doomed from the beginning, powerless against the shameless wickedness of three girls around a cauldron, to the extent that one dare not say his name. This is why Macbeth is referred to as the Scottish Play. His name is too powerful a talisman to risk its wrath.
At the end we are back where we started, with three girls in the twilight, living a fantasy. Swept up in their imagination and lacking the maturity and judgment to manage their emotions, they see what isn’t there. To girls of 12 everything is a sign. Life is a ritual. Fantasy can easily morph into delusion. So, too, the story of Macbeth, which inhabits a fog of lust for power, of indecision and of madness. The King is dead; long live the King.
Mac Beth, from the play by William Shakespeare; adapted and directed by Erica Schmidt. With Brittany Bradford, Camila Canó-Flaviá, Sharlene Cruz, Dylan Gelula, Imani Jade Powers, Sophie Kelly-Hedrick, Juliette Kenn de Balinthazy, Ismenia Mendes and Ayana Workman. Catherine Cornell, scenic design; Jessica Pabst, costume design; Jeff Croiter, lighting design; Lorenzo Pisoni, movement coordinator; Erin Bednarz, sound design. Presented by the Hunter Theater Project, at the Loewe Theater at Hunter College (119 East 68th St., between Park and Lexington Aves.) through February 2nd. For tickets go to www.huntertheaterproject.org or ovation tix. Runtime: 90 minutes with no intermission.