The Folger Theatre’s production of Macbeth starts off with a murder. Not just any murder, mind you, but the gory knifing of the house manager who prettily reels off announcements onstage. She doesn’t quite get to finish telling us to turn off our cell phones, though, because a wolfish troop of leering warriors surrounds and guts her.
It’s that kind of show. Aaron Posner’s director’s note says that this production is an attempt to restore some of the fun to Shakespeare’s classic, and it shows. Posner has a high-profile co-director in Emmy-winning magician Teller (the quieter half of the Vegas act "Penn & Teller"), and the two of them manage to pull off some pretty cool magic tricks. Characters vanish into thin air, reappear suddenly dripping in blood, clutch at daggers hovering inside mirrors, and sword-fight with considerable dexterity. And the fight choreography is pretty impressive considering the intimacy of the space.
Macbeth is a play surrounded by an almost supernatural level of superstition. Actors refuse to name it while inside a theater, preferring to call it “The Scottish Play” or “Mackers.” Perhaps these superstitions are not unfounded; when I saw the show, the actors had to back up and restart after a technical hiccup at the start of the night. But after that, the show ran smoothly as we followed the chilling tale of Macbeth and his murderous quest for the throne.
Ian Merrill Peakes and Kate Eastwood Norris lead the cast as Macbeth and his Lady. Peakes is excellent in the title role; his Macbeth starts off tough and assured and then swaggers into madness. His sense of humor grows in proportion to his insanity. Peakes embodies the notion of acting as reacting; his best moments come when he silently responds to another actor. Norris, a local favorite, seems a bit of an odd choice for the scheming Lady M. Norris usually gets cast in comedic or quirky parts; here, too, she wrings all the humor from the role. It’s the heavier stuff that presents the problem. Her “Unsex me here” soliloquy is underwhelming, but she gets better as the night goes on. I was with her completely by the time she got to the “Out, damn spot!” speech. The rest of the cast is fine, with Cody Nickell as Macduff getting in a few good moments. There are also three child actors in the cast; they fare much better than young actors usually do when presented with Shakespeare. But, really, it is Peakes’ show.
The set design, by Daniel Conway, is a two-level, rusty contraption, with a set of giant gates commanding most of the attention. The lights, by Thom Weaver, are harsh and unforgiving, and used to sickly success with the rendering of Banquo’s ghost. The sound design, by Karin Graybash, features a lot of creaking noises and one live, hidden percussionist. Every time the side doors shut, for example, they are accompanied by a bellowing note from somewhere backstage. Less effective is the costume design by Devon Painter. There are a lot of kilts—we are in Scotland, after all—accompanied by a bevy of cut-off sweaters and motorcycle jackets. The whole skirted effect is oddly reminiscent of the Lord of the Rings movies and, honestly, kind of silly. The three grotesque witches are played by men, so maybe there is some sort of gender commentary buried underneath the monkey business. The witches, by the way, get the best scene of the night. They roar and grunt and heave and sway as they toss eye of newt and toe of frog into a giant cauldron, toiling and troubling to great, lively effect.
For all of the magic, though, the creepiest moment of the night has nothing to do with sleight of hand. Macduff’s tiny son gets murdered onstage, and the directors, to their credit, don’t try to jazz it up. They simply have the murderer snuff this brief candle out, and drag his almost weightless little body away, carelessly, as one might tow a pillow. That was one minute, in this otherwise morbidly amusing Macbeth, that didn’t seem funny in the slightest.