In the small black box theater, the upstage wall slides apart as the softly dreary lights rise, underlined by vaguely familiar music that recalls chilly, Northern Britain. Gentle fog frames three women emerging in shapeless brown dresses, echoing each others' whispers. These witches are eerie, primal, but innocently sexy. With this opening, director James Phillip Gates and the Roust Theatre Company set the scene for their violent, lusty, sexy, powerful and bloody production of Macbeth.
The artistry involved in creating this Scotland is impressive, supporting the actors without overpowering their work. Casey Smith has designed an invisibly effortless stage, functionally breaking down into different scenes as bench becomes bed, bed becomes platform, and platform becomes the bench again. Michael Bogden’s sound choices evoke a dark and powerful atmosphere slowly passing into the audience’s consciousness: serpentine rattling and haunting jangly strings in the scenes preceding Duncan’s murder, the shrieking yet indistinct siren for the dagger soliloquy, and the clicking of dusty film reels between scenes of battle. Heather Klar's costume design transforms the actor into Lady Macbeth as well as the character into the publicly regal Lady Macbeth, from sexy red hostess dress to a more dignified black gown as queen. She dresses the men in mostly strong dashing suits, complementing the modern but timeless world of gentlemen, where they play battle on a chessboard but still play for keeps, for honor, fealty, and power.
The actors build from the text a world where sexual violence and violent sex are applauded, rewarded, and even interchanged—where it is completely justified for the future prince to rip out a traitor’s teeth before cutting his throat, and where Lady Macbeth dominates her husband as she grinds on his pelvis and his will-power. This commendable troupe even manages to pull out some genuine comedic moments in the middle of one of Shakespeare’s great tragedies. Speaking with strong physical commitment and articulate modern voices (for good or ill, whichever pleases), these actors do not let Macbeth and his Lady rule this ensemble piece.
Tracy Hostmyer’s Lady Macbeth grows as the performance progresses, starting steady and gradually tipping the scales toward insane. Adapting a deeper, smoothing voice, Hostmyer dominates and protects her Macbeth, instructing while she condescends and humors him. She is implicated as a witch, or a witch-like practitioner, when she surrounds herself in a circle of special powder in preparation for her “unsex me here” soliloquy. More context from the production elements are needed, however, so her epileptic fits of supernatural power seem less schizophrenic and more a conduit of the paranormal.
But more powerful is when Lady Macbeth stands before us in Act V, naked in the shreds of her tissue-thin nightdress, perfectly exposed in washing off her obsessive guilt as she sleeps. In the banquet scene, we see her attempts to comfort the lords and cover her husband’s embarrassing psychotic episodes, while Trey Ziegler’s Macbeth reaches his emotional climax and breaking point. As a bloody, banged-up Banquo, Andrew Pifko interrupts Lady Macbeth’s stately dinner party (which, to be fair, he is supposed to attend anyway), her husband’s mind visibly turns away from any consolation, and crosses the Rubicon into the beginning of madness. He meets the Weird Sisters again, and they have morphed into suppliant sex goddesses bent on pleasing Macbeth and themselves in a foursome, but he hardly notices. Even among the sadomasochistic witches in black tutus, Macbeth is more attentive, almost obsessed with the demonic prophesy voice-over dictating his future, only thrusting and gyrating as an afterthought.
Macduff is Macbeth’s character foil, meant to be seen as the upstanding Scot who puts the proper king on the throne, and who even flees the country to protect himself as the future victor over Macbeth. But witnessing the plundering of Macduff’s castle in his absence blurs this assumed black-and-white contrast, increasing his grieving sorrow and regret for his transgression, while providing even more motivation for revenge. Pregnant Lady Macduff (Kristin Barnett) watches her son, who is played as special needs by Tom Macy, murdered while she is raped and penetrated with a knife from behind before her own throat is cut. Her entire body, taut with anger and fear and victimization, shows her outrage and vulnerability for having no capable soldier to save her son, her future child, or herself. I could do nothing but stare.
Duane Boutte plays the good-hearted and repentant sinner, Macduff, well, seething quietly with outbursts calling for vengeance while his sins weigh heavily on his soul. Malcolm (Isaac Woofter) also presents a more nuanced character than taken at first glance, highlighted by the production’s spin. From torturing prisoners with unmedicated teeth extraction, flirting with Lady Macbeth, consciously manipulating Macduff in his hour of least resolve, and literally bedding the Weird Sisters in a repeat foursome, Malcolm doesn’t appear as an improvement to Macbeth; he is just without the ambitious woman leeching from his power.
In this horrendous Shakespearean world, abridged by modern attention span, the Roust Theatre Company keeps its passion for theater clear and projects more than just wonderful verse.