Sunday, May 26, 2019

18 (2019-2020): Review: MAC BETH (seen May 25, 2019)

“Is This a Mean Girl I See Before Me?”

If you’re a Shakespeare fan considering a visit to the Lortel to see the Red Bull Theater’s production of director Erica Schmidt’s adaption of Macbeth (respelled as Mac Beth), picture this: seven teenage girls, all dressed in parochial school garb—short skirts, suit jackets, high socks, vests, and white shirts with ties (designed by Jessica Pabst)—gather in a grassy junkyard (designed by Catherine Cornell). Around them are an overturned old couch, a metal bathtub, a truck tire, and other odds and ends of detritus. Their mission: to perform a stripped-down version of Macbeth
Sophie Kelly-Hedrick, Sharlene Cruz, Annasophia Robb. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Their props are found ones, like the metal rods they use as weapons; four of them play a single role (Macbeth [Isabelle Fuhrman], Lady Macbeth [Ismenia Mendes], Banquo [Ayana Workman], and Macduff [Lily Santiago]) while those playing the three witches (AnnaSophia Robb, Sophie Kelly-Hedrick, and Sharlene Cruz) assume as many as five additional roles each. These latter avoid differentiating their roles by indications of gender or age, remaining schoolgirls cum witches throughout. Except for a few simple hints, like eyeglasses, it’s nearly impossible, without knowing Macbeth well, to tell one minor character from another, or for that matter, even what the increasingly muddled play is about.
Sophie Kelly-Hedrick, Isabelle Fuhrman, Ayana Workman, Sharlene Cruz. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Here and there, Shakespeare’s text, to which the performance is mostly faithful, is interrupted by some modern insertion, like turning the porter’s speech about the knocking at the gates into a “knock knock” joke, or having one witch ask another where she got some weird object and being answered, “The science lab.” Cellphone use for texting abounds; there’s lots of girl-girl kissing between Macbeth and his lady; a lengthy sequence is played in a drenching rain; and headbanging pop music (including numbers by Beyoncé, Billie Eilish, and Myley Cyrus) is blasted so everybody can dance frenetically on the junkyard heath.
Company of Mac Beth. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
If you’re ready to watch seven young actresses whose nearly uniformly high-pitched voices barely differ from one another shouting Shakespeare’s lines at Mach speed for 90 minutes, then Schmidt's approach is for you. You may even not squirm as they turn the tragedy’s characters into angst-ridden teenage girls, often completely missing the intent of the lines (like Macbeth’s “Is this a dagger” speech), with attitude replacing nuance.
Isabelle Fuhrman, Ismenia Mendes. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Sometimes, laughter is the goal, as during the manic banquet scene when Banquo’s ghost appears like a zonked-out zombie, or when, after Macbeth is slain by Macduff (Lily Santiago), the witches silently descend on her corpse with butcher knives and slice away for an eternity until one holds the king's severed head as if she were Perseus with the head of Medusa. What might otherwise be sickening (the head is realistic) instead becomes a sight gag as the witches take group selfies with their trophy, bringing this maimed adaptation to an end.
Ismenia Mendes, Isabelle Fuhrman. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Schmidt, whose production follows famed director Tyrone Guthrie’s “Wouldn’t-it-be-fun-to” approach to Shakespeare, occasionally creates striking images on the thrust stage (which now seems a permanent fixture at the reconfigured Lortel). An example is the witches’ cooking of disgusting things in a pot as smoke pours out and, under Jeff Croiter’s dramatic lighting, the rain pelts them while one holds aloft a red umbrella.
Sharlene Cruz, AnnaSophia Robb, Sophie Kelly-Hedrick. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Even if the production is seeking to satirize toxic masculinity by having it embodied in the presence of young women, or to otherwise comment on Shakespeare's male-female power issues, one still has to sit through a production in which actresses I’ve seen do far better work are unable to help us take what we’re seeing seriously. Their plentiful earnestness is insufficient for a play over which even seasoned adult professionals often stumble. They excel at representing teens trying to act Shakespeare but not at actually playing Shakespeare. Somewhere, sometime, the audience must forget the interpretation's premise and  become involved in the tragedy of Macbeth; Schmidt's radical approach makes sure that doesn't happen. 
AnnaSophia Robb, Sophie Kelly-Hedrick,. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
If you’re going to do Macbeth in the guise of a mean girls’ teenage drama, Schmidt's is probably the best way to do it. The question remains, however, despite the interpretive rationales offered in the program notes: Why do it in the first place?
Lily Santiago. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Lucille Lortel Theatre
121 Christopher St., NYC