Directors seem to face difficulty when attempting to make productions of Macbeth theatrically interesting, trying all sorts of things to get audiences notice them. I have seen Macbeths set in the Melbourne criminal underground; a Soviet-era someplace with a crotchety Patrick Stewart; a Civil War-era fort under the Golden Gate Bridge, and I even played Macduff in a production in which all of the roles were switched in the middle from male to female performers. Audiences notice these loud directorial decisions and like to talk about how interesting (or not) they are. The all-female company, Woman’s Will, guided by founding Artistic Director Erin Merritt, bewitches with the power of the Witches, but this production leaves audiences most spellbound with a well-done Lady Macbeth. The play revolves around the Lady; she's arguably the most recognizable female character in all of drama. Despite Will's promotional insistence that the witches are the most impressive attribute of this production, it is Lady Macbeth, played by Leontyne Mbele-Mbong who, also taking on at least seven other roles in this production, leaves her audience wanting more.
I don’t mean to suggest that the witches aren’t at all impressive. Being nothing more than shadows and voices in this production, they are incredibly effective, and the actors make sure that their presence is felt in every moment of the action. When only five people are playing all of the parts, it would normally prove challenging to embody more than one character at any given time, but the cast does it seamlessly and effortlessly. Although it is difficult to play more than one part in any production, it is decidedly more difficult to play those parts with pieces of characters always present in one another, and on top of that, without losing the audience. This production is not confusing for a second, and that lack can be embraced with pride.
Okay, maybe just for one second. This production, at times, uses unnecessary video effects when the cast has obviously developed a graceful adroitness when it comes to doing cool things with light and shadow. The shadow witches are wonderful and eerie, but when Banquo approaches the audience and Macbeth as a projected video loop of a default effect on the same screen, the audience is too busy judging the merits of the director's A/V editing skills rather than paying attention to Banquo’s ghost. Any shadow would have done better, and since we and the actors are used to shadow play at this point, it would have blended quite nicely.
The night I saw Woman's Will perform Macbeth was one of the last nights at the Jack London Square Retail Theater Space before the troupe moves on to a brief run at San Francisco’s Exit Theatre. JLS Retail Theater Space is really just a vacant storefront. I say "just" because it is thrilling to see Scotland come to life there. Lighting Designer Stephanie Buchner, and Costume Designer Tammy Berlin had their work cut out for them, but both really come through with a simple but effective strategy. Minimalism and adaptability is the name of this game, and every measure of the black slacks and white shirts are used to create a character. Set Designer Jacquelyn Scott turns the sparse space into a theater, creating wings on a nonexistent stage, and making the backstage area disappear by turning our attention to it as often as possible. So elegantly done is the set design, that the big awkward wall in the center of the room, playing Birnam Wood, England, and Dunsinane, becomes all of those places all on its own. Here’s an instance where “Wall” really does have a part in the play. And I love how close that wall comes to being ineffective, and how dangerous it was to do it that way. But the women of Woman's Will seem to like to do things dangerously.
Anytime a Shakespeare production has an all-male or all-female cast, it is in danger of becoming a parlor trick. Men playing Viola or Cleopatra are almost always cheap because they end up mere parodies of the characters and women in general. It's no different when women play male characters. The only thing that is often accomplished by gender bending on the stage is to show how little we know about each other. Men play women coy and effeminate (women are almost never coy and effeminate), and women play men chesty and macho (most men have (hopefully) learned machismo gets them nowhere). Woman's Will doesn't mess around like that. The production crew includes a movement coach, Lauren Steinter-Scout, who must be very good. These women are some of the most talented actors I've seen because they not only speak like men, but also moved like them. When Leontyne Mbele-Mbong plays a male role, she is totally believable, and as Lady Macbeth, she is noticeably different—more womanly but not cliché or camp. They don't make a joke about the fact that they are women playing men, and the audience forgets it almost immediately. The production is neither parody nor gimmick. All-in-all, it's a pretty straight production, and a straight production is really hard to do when you've only got five women playing all the parts. But they do it, and it's a testament to what this little fearless troupe is all about.