Macbeth may seem an odd selection for Roundhouse Productions, whose members were involved in a staging of Point Break Live! at the New Rock Theatre, a stage version of the Keanu Reeves vehicle. That cult hit was extended several times. Another project at the New Rock, slated for July, is Predator the Musical. In between these live send-ups of dusty blockbuster favorites, someone decided to put up some Shakespeare. And they go full throttle, casting 35 actors and making only a few judicious cuts to the verse. Roundhouse’s Macbeth, a play easily messed around with, is surprisingly straightforward. In fact, I craved more style and imagination—I wanted them to leave a mark on the text. While there are some kernels of originality, they aren’t fully formed. Considering Elizabethan drama is a 180 switch from New Rock's usual popcorn fodder, this Macbeth is decent, if a bit stodgy.
Mary Reynard Liss, an experienced lover of the Bard according to her bio, directs. Her imagining of the play is at odds with the company’s goofy-yet-reverent aesthetic. This Macbeth feels like a show you’d see at some summer festival in a theatre-starved Midwestern village. It’s good, though somewhat unmemorable, but Chicago is not lacking theatre or Shakespeare. An excellent production here requires innovation and a clear, identifiable voice. Roundhouse has fine actors (and a ton of them), unmuddled storytelling ability, and plenty of energy, but their Macbeth does not have the creative spark needed to justify the production.
The show kicks off with a vibrant depiction of the battle between the Norwegians and the Scots, something Shakespeare makes glancing mentions of but doesn’t actually write in. Liss and fight designer Orion Couling stage an impressive full-cast brawl. It’s a multi-tiered fight that tells the tale of Macbeth’s victory succinctly and sans dialogue. However, not a single sword is swung. Liss’s concept, her most interesting, is that swords and other weapons are completely absent from the on-stage action. Instead, the actors mime the fights while “combat witches” clink swords together to make the appropriate battle noises. The idea is simple, bloodless, and it works.
With the opening war sequence and the anime-esque poster art, I was hoping that the show would have a comic book feel to it, a la Qui Nguyen. However, that isn’t the case. Once the dialogue starts flowing, the comic book conception is tossed away.
Paula Consdorf’s workable costumes aim for Elizabethan, although obviously they couldn’t afford complete period attire (what storefront theatre company could?). Steven Hill’s set provides Liss with plenty of levels to stage the action, which she does relatively well. Hill’s lights work well, although he uses some painfully obvious spotlights to let the audience know when an aside comes along.
There’s no question Liss’s production is sophisticated. It requires a myriad of moving parts, sometimes to its own detriment. A good fraction of the cast has fewer than five lines. The large cast would be a fascinating factor if Liss had staged more crowd scenes, but many of her actors spend the majority of the running time backstage. We have a major transition between each scene, requiring a black-out and some shuffling of set pieces. A couple of these took far too much time than they were worth. A more stripped-down approach would work better. The detailed costumes, the humongous cast, the careful plotting of each set piece—it isn’t needed. Do some double-casting and let us in the audience conjure up throne rooms and magic swamps in our heads; we’re smart enough. The lengthy blackouts and period garb make this Macbeth static.
The performances, though, are definitely professional caliber. Playing the titular Scot, this marks John Tyberghein's Chicago debut. His first few acts are wooden, but he livens up as Macbeth becomes crazier. Lana Smithner is far too young to be playing Lady Macbeth, but she does a great job nonetheless. There is chemistry between Tyberghein and Smithner, but the sexual element could be ratcheted up. You can tell Macbeth’s power-grabs really get his wife off, but whenever the couple has a secret meeting, the actors lunge for Platonic hugs. Honestly, we want more making out. Cody Evans’s Banquo is great, as is most of the supporting cast. The actors here show a respect for the language, a quality unusual for such a young company. The verse is clear and the story makes sense—simple yet crucial aspects that are many times ignored.
Liss’s Macbeth features some video design, some of which is quite effective and disturbing (including a visual depiction of the witches’ prophecy). Like much of the show, the video is hit or miss and teeters on originality. This show proves Roundhouse can do Shakespeare and they can do it well. Now I want to see them do Shakespeare in the Roundhouse way.