Lower City Park Festival Stage — through June 18
Riverside Theatre in the Park opens its new season with a sparse treatment of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Directed by artistic director Sean Christopher Lewis, Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy is further abridged to give more voice on and focus on the victims of historic and contemporary warfare.
While the posters depict a Macbeth set in Stalinist Russia, the setting, costumes and musical score remain more purposefully ambiguous in time and setting. The witches mention “Aleppo” in the opening scene, the Scottish uniforms hint at World War I designs, Macbeth’s coronation overcoat and hat recall Soviet leaders and Lady Macbeth’s smart green and black ensembles suggest the silhouettes of the 1940s. When the rightful heir Malcolm (the dashing K. Michael Moore) assumes the throne in the final scene, “Scotland the Brave” plays over his speech of restoration and progress for his war-torn nation.
The stage design is spare but haunting, as white dresses and shirts hang from the simple black backdrop. The design recalled several recent refugee-inspired art projects, such as Ai Weiwei’s troubling “Laundromat” (2016). Some dresses fluttered and twisted in the summer breeze as the audience found their seats for opening night, indicating the absent presences of those displaced or killed by war.
The three witches — played by Heather Michele Lawler, Krista Neumann and Carrie Houchins-Witt — emerge from a rusty tin-sided shanty to open the play with, “When shall we three meet again?” Dressed as Russian peasants with long skirts and floral scarves and headdresses, Lewis evokes sympathy for the three, described in the program summary as “women left nationless by conflict.”
When the witches first meet Macbeth (Patrick Dulaney) and Banquo (Barrington Vaxter) to tell the soldiers of their fates, we see the power dynamics of these military men mocking and dismissing poor refugee women. As the witches grow in their desperation for political change, their influence over Macbeth and magical powers increase, culminating in their final prophecy for Macbeth, complete with spooky lighting, sound, costuming and makeup effects.
In one of the most moving scenes of the first act, we learn that the Macbeths have lost greatly in Scotland’s never-ending wars. Saren Nofs Snyder, a Chicago-based Shakespearean actress returns to Riverside as a complex and poignant Lady Macbeth. When she convinces her husband to murder Duncan by claiming that she would murder her own child for ambition, Snyder fingers a child’s dress hanging above the stage. This gesture reduces the blustery Macbeth to choking back tears as he affirms that he will kill the king to gain the throne.
This scene both foreshadows and contrasts with the brutality of the Macbeths’ ambition in the second act. We witness the honorable thane Macduff (Kehry Anson Lane) leave behind his vulnerable family in order to convince Malcolm to return to Scotland to vanquish Macbeth and reclaim the throne. In his absence, Macduff’s family is slaughtered at Macbeth’s command, and Lane beautifully balances his grief for his wife and children with his duty to his country.
Battles are not just fought at the national level, but within the household, too. When Macduff leaves, his angry wife tells their son, “Your father is dead.” But it is the domestic battles for power between the Macbeths that audiences wish to see. Dulaney and Snyder’s chemistry is apparent, and the two actors show their shared ambitions, desires and vulnerabilities in their scenes together.
Dulaney’s Macbeth is a strong and proud soldier, but in his early asides addressed directly to the audience, his moral quandaries become hammy. When he is with his wife, however, the two actors complement each other nicely. Snyder’s Lady Macbeth is undone not by her guilt concerning Duncan’s murder, but by Macbeth’s cruel dismissal of her when he becomes king. Dulaney’s best moments are at his quietest, such as when he mourns his wife’s suicide.
The first act plods along; the entrances, exits and dialogue are all a little slow, but the discovery of Duncan’s murder picks up the pace and allows the play to enter the chaos of the supernatural world of witches and regicides. This continues with the darkly humorous Porter scene and the ill-fated banquet scene, in which Dulaney’s paranoia and presence are well-performed. The second act is greatly and successfully reduced, showing how quickly the Macbeths destroy themselves and their country.
All of the actors, except DuLaney, Nofs Snyder and the very charismatic Vaxter, like the witches with their evocative language of “double, double” play multiple roles to great effect. The three actresses playing the witches also play some of the key players in the revolt against the tyrannical Macbeth. Riverside in the Park veteran Tim Budd demonstrates his range as a character player, disappearing into his roles as the trusting and doomed King Duncan, the drunken Porter and the terrifying Hecate.
Over the course of the play, a king is assassinated, regimes change, friends and confidants who know too much are murdered, the innocent wife and children of the opposition are slaughtered, young soldiers die trying to restore national order and the wars seem to never end. This production’s effective cuts make this play not just the tragedy of the Macbeths, but rather the tragedy of the entire nation at war.
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Macbeth runs two and a half hours with one 15 minute intermission. Tickets are $12-30. Performances continue this weekend and next Tuesday through Sunday. Tuesday and Sunday Family Night performances start at 7 p.m.; all other shows start at 8 p.m.