“What’s amiss?” asks young prince Donalbain in Act 2, Scene 3 of Shakespeare’s Scottish play. “You are, but do not know’t,” answers Macbeth. He means, of course, that Donalbain is about to be devastated by the news that his father has been bloodily murdered (though it will be some time before Donalbain realizes that Macbeth is himself the murderer. (Oops, spoiler alert. But that’s really just the beginning.)
However, it’s hard not to imagine that those lines might have been part of the inspiration behind MAC BETH, the Red Bull Theater’s new 90-minute production of Shakespeare’s notoriously cursed play, adapted and directed by Erica Schmidt. In this version, Donalbain, Macbeth and all the other characters are indeed misses – young women in Catholic schoolgirl garb who’ve gathered in a mysterious modern-day empty lot to act out the centuries-old play – and, some of them, to commit their own real-life bloodymindedness. Emphasis on bloody.
This is not the first time one of Shakespeare’s plays has been set among schoolgirls. Think back only to Access Theater’s 2017 Julius Caesar (I still have the friendship bracelet Caesar left on my chair, booty from her victory over Pompey). And just like the Roman tragedy, Macbeth’s dramatic declarations, jockeying for position, conflicting allegiances and deadly deeds committed in the dark of night do seem particularly well-suited to the dark designs of the adolescent female mind. To say nothing of the witches!
Like the Scottish warriors they portray, the girls wear pleated plaid kilts – part of their school uniforms (costumes designed by Jessica Pabst) – but their props include baby dolls, smartphones and tampons. Nonetheless, they inhabit their parts to the grim fullest, with fervor and intensity. From the first incantations and schemes that emerge out of the mouths of the lisping, baby-voiced trio of witches (AnnaSophia Robb, Sharlene Cruz and Sophie Kelly-Hedrick), it’s clear that this unusual setting is more than just a gimmicky juxtaposition. The uneasy camaraderie of Macbeth (Isabelle Fuhrman) and Banquo (Ayana Workman) as they receive the eerie prophecies of the giggling witches takes on a whole new timbre inflected through teenage girls and their ever-shifting alliances. And when Lady Macbeth (a sparkling, high-spirited Ismenia Mendes) starts wheedling her hesitant husband on to the vicious murder of the king who has honored him, the combination of conniving charm and innocence of the full horror of what she’s suggesting elevates her to the ranks of the very creepiest (and most effective) Scottish queens.
But while Julius Caesar is largely a political play and, as such, translates well into the Queen Bee holding court over her Clueless drones, Macbeth’s brutal dissection of human – and inhuman – degradation and despair lends itself to the anarchic excesses of teenage rebellion. Bright and nuanced, even academic, in their portrayals of the Shakespearean characters, the girls also use them as portals to the darker side. The increasing wildness of their ritualized dance breaks, the physical and mental dishevelment that grow throughout the play, and the eerie sexualization of the drama’s disturbing climax all evoke the girls’ eagerness to escape everyday civilization and descend into bloody frenzy.
The talented ensemble cast is not only up to the complex task they’re set, they’re clearly game to follow the conceit as far as they can go. The girls may be playing Macbeth, but unlike the Scots they’re embodying, they’re exhilarated, not depleted by the violence, betrayal and supernatural antic. Indeed, if Shakespeare’s comedies escape to a green world, this production of Macbeth may reveal a red one, a current of blood that sweeps away all trace of humanity, leaving behind only those two adolescent fascinations: the superhuman and the inhuman.