Normally, opening on a dark and stormy night would be considered a bad omen for a theater production, but it may prove to be a good thing when the play you’re performing begins, “When shall we three meet again? In thunder, lightning, or in rain?” Besides, any company that’s decided to put up a production of Macbeth either isn’t superstitious enough to believe in bad omens, or is laughing in the face of bad luck anyway. Such was the situation on last night's opening of Piper Theater Productions’ Macbeth. A downpour forced the show out of Park Slope, Brooklyn’s J.J. Byrne Park and into the auditorium of the middle school across the street. It’s hard to say whether the show suffered from the transition, but I can say I plan to see it again to find out. While it starts off rocky, this production is full of some marvelous moments, owing mostly to John P. McEneny’s direction and breathtaking visuals.
In this production, the supernatural takes a front seat. The witches are on stage for much of the play, and seem very invested in Macbeth’s success, even going so far as to provide the Scotsman with everything he needs. In a beautiful, dance-like sequence, the witches and a retinue of spirits taunt Macbeth with ethereal daggers before finally giving him a pair. When he needs to do away with Banquo and his son, Fleance, the witches provide him with a group of ethereal, faceless murderers reminiscent of the Black Riders from the Lord of the Rings films, who move and speak as one.
But they’re not just in it to aid Macbeth. To the contrary, the entire situation seems to fill them with childlike glee, and they are sure to interact with every player in their prophecy as if it is they, and not fate, that are responsible for its completion. Every time a character is killed, the witches lead the soul of the departed offstage, presumably into their “cauldron,” which is not a real cauldron at all, but rather a writhing mass of tortured spirits. Sometimes they choose to have a little fun, first, however. It is the witches who lead Banquo’s ghost into Macbeth’s castle, leading to one of the best banquet scenes I have ever seen. When Macduff receives the news of his family’s murder, the witches lead their spirits around him in a parade, agonizing Macduff and forcing him to declare revenge. Each time the witches are onstage, McEneny delivers an impressive, powerful take on familiar scenes; each visually arresting sequence left me with goosebumps.
Of course, the production isn’t exactly perfect. While the acting becomes rather good—with a few standout performances, such as Thomas Piper’s lead and Sean Phillips’ outstanding Macduff—after Duncan makes his (or, in the case of this production, her) fateful entrance into Dunsinane, the beginning is rocky. The actors tend to play their characters as they will be, not as they are in that moment in the play, which robs them of the dynamism they are afforded in the script. This is particularly true of the lead role: none of Macbeth’s initial confusion and awe of the witch’s prophecies, or his reluctance to go through with regicide, come across. Further, while the music is very successful where it works, it more often seems inappropriate. The play may also suffer from an overabundance of fight scenes. Does Lady Macduff really need to grab a sword and put up a fight when the murderers show up?
Piper Productions’ Macbeth is, overall, a very good production. It is well-acted and well-costumed, and very, very well-staged—the witch sequences alone make this production worth seeing. And, hey, what better way to spend an evening than a free Shakespeare performance outdoors?