To enter the E. Otto Haas Auditorium of the Arden Theatre, one must first wind one's way through the dim maze of dark metal scaffolding supporting the seating area before emerging in front of a massive black stone platform surrounded by looming walls: their set for Macbeth. It's an appropriate first look at a production that focuses heavily on atmosphere, impressing the audience with a visceral sense of doom to foreshadow the characters' fates even as they choose their paths themselves.
Director Alexander Burns refers to the play as "frighteningly modern", a concept that pervades the production's aesthetic. Brian Sidney Bembridge's scenic design offers an intriguing mix between the Shakespearean thrust stage and the currently conventional proscenium arch: the raised stone circle with irregular wall panels leaning over it like standing stones does not protrude dramatically into the house, but their sheer size makes their presence undeniable.
The updated Shakespearean aesthetic of Costume Designer Rosemarie E. McKelvey, meanwhile, puts the fictionalized 17th-century versions of medieval historical figures in modern combat fatigues — then accessorizes with broadswords and plate armor. She is also quite adept at picking up on the clothing imagery in the text itself. Macbeth starts the play in plain black fatigues, but as he adjusts to the "strange garments" of his new titles, his clothing becomes increasingly ornate, culminating in his extravagant coronation outfit: an embroidered red and gold waistcoat topped off with a luxurious gold-lined crimson velvet cloak and, of course, his crown. But from there, he sheds his layers as he becomes more and more uneasy in his power — first losing the cloak, then trading his suit for an elaborate but slightly too large golden robe that does indeed "hang loose about him, like a giant's robe upon a dwarvish thief", and finally removing that to reveal once again his black fatigues, stripped back to the core of his character. (Given the attention paid to Macbeth's outfits and the perfectly serviceable costuming for the rest of the cast, one can only wish that Lady Macbeth's dress had received similar care: her slinky but ill-fitting red gowns and worn boots seem grievously at odds with the character's self-presentation.)
Burns clearly has a firm grasp of Shakespeare's text: his emendations streamline the action without losing anything vital, and he uses the play to establish an intriguing parallel between Macbeth (Ian Merrill Peakes) and Banquo (Ben Dibble). The two start the play in joint battle and at first seem to have similar warmth and affability. Though they react very differently to the witches' predictions, both begin to exhibit paranoia, and Banquo's (fully justified) suspicions are given a greater weight when he literally steals the spotlight during Macbeth's coronation to give them voice — in a robe very similar to the one Macbeth dons shortly after, no less. The visual motif of his son Fleance holding his sword recurs several times, contrasting the predicted future (and actual history) with Macbeth's current rise to power, until it closes out the play.
However, one of Burns' more apparent strengths is using the special effects of the modern theater to augment Shakespeare's text, aided by the fantastic work of Lighting Designer Solomon Weisbard and Sound Designer James Sugg. Lightning flashes, thunder rolls, and unearthly sound effects peal with pleasing exactness. The fight scenes are a mix of intense stage fighting and stylized slow motion and freeze frames, aided by sudden bursts complete darkness; the weird sisters' meetings take place with strategically-deployed fog, eerie green filters, and disconcerting strobe lighting. But Burns also knows when less is more: after Macbeth has murdered Duncan, the stage is lit by a single bright beam from between two of the lurking wall panels, like the early morning sun through a window. The effect is both visually unsettling and thematically appropriate as it suggests that Macbeth's crimes have been exposed to the harsh light of day.
Despite the epic nature of the production, the cast does an excellent job in refusing to let it overwhelm their performances (though this does lead to an unfortunate tendency to begin declaiming the dialogue with a side of sweeping hand gestures). The most powerful moments occur when the cast un-self-consciously portrays these outsized personalities. The sleepwalking breakdown of Lady Macbeth (Judith Lightfoot Clarke) is a fascinating and compelling contrast to her previous façade of indomitability. The contortions and shuffling dances of the Weird Sisters (E. Ashley Izard, Aimé Donna Kelly, and Mary Tuomanen) are indeed pretty weird, but they are at their most supernaturally inhuman when they treat themselves like interchangeable parts, intertwining so that each chappy finger lays upon the skinny lips of a sister and neither of the pricking thumbs belongs to the speaker. Christopher Patrick Mullen as the extremely drunk Porter provides some contrasting levity when he improvises his knock-knock jokes for the modern audience.
However, this dynamic is best exemplified by Ian Merrill Peakes' performance as Macbeth. His first appearance is during a fight scene intercut with the witches' opening speech, but Peakes almost immediately tempers this bloodthirstiness with genuine friendliness towards Banquo; when Angus and Ross show up to praise his exploits, he's almost bashful. As the play progresses, Peakes shows Macbeth trying to maintain his social connectivity. After Duncan's murder, he retains enough self-awareness that his answer to Lennox’s reports of the amazing tumult of the previous evening is an amusingly dry, “...'Twas a rough night”; however, he increasingly loses the ability to read his audience and react appropriately. Peakes gives an excellent performance of a man spiralling inward as his ambitions trap him in a cycle of paranoia and violence: his temper and nervous habit of wiping his hand on his shirt are never extreme, but his reactions are consistently off, unsettling his subjects and even his wife even as he strives to retain his former temperament. By the time Macduff reveals he was from his mother's womb untimely ripp'd, Peakes's Macbeth simply abandons any pretense of regular human interaction and collapses to the ground before eventually mustering the willpower for a response to this final blow to his ambitions.
In his summation of the play, Burns states that “In Macbeth we see the will of a man being influenced, manipulated and ultimately destroyed by forces outside himself.” By giving emphasis to those outside forces, the Arden Theatre's production of Macbeth offers a compelling and innovative way to illuminate the man destroyed by them — with the finest imitation of lightning the theatre can provide, perfectly on cue.