There’s a theory that the reason the Scottish play’s real name must never be uttered in the theater is that the murderous drama blurs the lines between reality and illusion, fate and free will, natural and unnatural – and supernatural. And after all, what’s the difference between a spell whispered in some midnight wood and one declaimed on the stage? An invocation of spirits recited seriously or simply simulating seriousness? Who’s to say that wicked things answer only to sincerity and won’t choose to respond to the unwary actors’ summoning?
Of course, chief among this play’s wicked things are its protagonists. The eponymous Scottish warrior serves his king, Duncan (a serene and stately Mary Beth Pell), well, until an encounter with the Weird Sisters sets him mulling about whether he himself might ascend the throne. His power-hungry wife is all too eager to help him with the obvious, if regicidal, solution. But one bloody murder leads inexorably to the next and the next, while the couple starts to suffer from visions and visitations that may just be figments of their guilty imaginations – but may just as easily be real.
Just in time for Halloween, the Classic Stage Company’s minimalist staging of Shakespeare’s spookiest play takes the trope of the slippage between stage and reality to whole new levels. For starters, the wannabe king of Scotland and his ambitious wife are played by a real-life married couple, Corey Stoll (Ant-Man, House of Cards) and Nadia Bowers (Life Sucks). The witches are not limited to the traditional trio – almost every actor in the play is at some point one of the witches, and there may be as many as eight on the stage at once, even as they ask, “When shall we three meet again?” And perhaps most intriguing of all, while director John Doyle’s production retains the darkness and despair of the tragedy, there are moments of levity – even laugh lines – that emerge uncannily from the gloom.
Still renowned for his stunning bare-bones Broadway revival of Sweeney Todd, as artistic director of the CSC, Doyle has generally directed similarly pared-down productions, and this is no exception. There’s little by way of a set, purposefully generic costumes enlivened by swaths of vaguely tartan-esque material, which each character deploys differently, and an abbreviated script, which shortens Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy to about an hour and 40 minutes. It highlights the standout scenes but doesn’t always leave enough interstitial material between them, resulting in a sort of hallucinogenic parade of famous set pieces.
It’s easy to see why this might seem to jibe well with Stoll’s performance style. He’s an affable Everyman, the murderer as middle manager, happy to banter with his bro, Banquo (Erik Lochtefeld), and his wry delivery of some of these famous lines renders them funny but, more importantly, makes them resonate and feel alive again. That’s when his performance is at its best. He’s also well worth watching in the moments of high drama. One confrontation with the witches is superbly staged as he stands high on high, backlit to the point of unreadability, which the multiple sisters stand below, backs to the audience, ostensibly answering his demands but also leading him into disaster. The problem is that, perhaps because of the play’s shortening, he doesn’t fully build the connections between those two modes. It’s not a flipped switch between banal and evil; it’s more a murky kind of osmosis that lets them bleed into each other.
Bowers is compelling in her surprisingly limited role, but she and Stoll, oddly, don’t develop a strong onstage chemistry. Perhaps it’s because her performance is in a different key. She’s sharp, artfully stylized and sensuous, but her performative flair doesn’t mix effectively here with Stoll’s more relaxed realism, even when his emotions are elevated.
In a deeper sense, though, these failings just underline the very real difficulties this play presents anyone who wants to put it on – difficulties that may themselves keep its name unspoken. Keeping an audience engaged with and even sympathetic to a murderous usurper who doesn’t even enjoy the kill or the reward? That’s a line it’s difficult to get an audience to cross. Perhaps the real challenge of this Voldemort of a play is just how tough it is to stay connected to the gaping wound at its emotional center. Oh, let’s just say it. Macbeth.