Monday, April 24, 2017

Margin Notes: The Humanist Project's Macbeth

Josephine Wilson as Hecate, with
Welland H. Scripps, Claire Warden, and
Zach Libresco as the three Witches.
Photo by Ariella Axelbank.
The Humanist Project's Macbeth

Seen on: Friday, 4/21/17.
My grade: B-

Plot and Background
King Duncan has just completed a successful battle skirmish with Norway, thanks in no small part to Macbeth, whom he honors with promotion and a royal visit. Macbeth, meanwhile, has received a prophecy from three weird sisters that he will soon be king himself. Encouraged by his ambitious wife, Macbeth murders Duncan and frames his guards for the deed. When Duncan's two sons flee, Macbeth takes the throne, but there is soon unrest and insurrection, and the new king's paranoia and guilt unravel his reign from within, while Macduff and Malcolm seek to unravel it from without. The Humanist Project is a Brooklyn-based company exploring life as the greatest piece of art. Macbeth is the third installment in The Humanist Project's Tyrant Series, "a study of politics, power and corruption through the lens of Shakespeare's work," a series which began last April.

and What I Knew Beforehand
Disclosure: I know several of the players involved, due to my association with The Shakespeare Forum. As for what I knew beforehand, I know the play Macbeth fairly well, having seen numerous productions and worked on it in school, and I knew that this production featured a cast of five.


Play: By and large, I thought that while there were many compelling concepts and ideas at play in this production, not enough of them were played out to their full potential. There is something engaging and thrilling about casting such a small company of players, but some of the staging made me long for just one more actor, to help share the burden and perhaps reduce confusion. I've seen Shakespeare done with even fewer players (four), but that kind of casting economy requires distinct (perhaps even more caricatured) performances in order for the audience to differentiate which soldier, which lord, we're currently watching - because in costume, voice, and physicality, he too often bears too strong a similarity to another soldier or lord played by the same actor. And while I found the idea of the chalkboards set and chalk-as-blood aesthetic absolutely fascinating and viscerally exciting, it was tamer than I expected, for a play so stepped in blood, to paraphrase the title character. Banquo's corpse received a chalk outline, but what of Macbeth's other victims? The subtle touches that hint toward a contemporary commentary - Macbeth's red power tie, the Russian-accented murderer, etc. - were satisfyingly executed, however. What was ultimately most effective for me in this production was watching the more visceral character relationships - the power balance between Macbeth and his wife, the love and fear, and guilty resignation to follow the path they've set; the slithering mass of the three witches, kinetically exciting for each of their appearances; and, interestingly, some of the "trick" scenes, like the greasy spoon gossip scene, or the closet conspiracy, all in pantomime staging but with full spatial conviction.

Cast: With a cast this small, every performer gets a rather nice showcase and a generous box of toys to play with. Welland H. Scripps's somewhat creepy King Duncan contrasts against his honorable Macduff in a pleasing way, as does Zach Libresco's soused Porter against his earnest Malcolm. Josephine Wilson's Banquo is a good stalwart foil to Macbeth, but I suspect she has the most fun as the sexy and commanding Hecate, towering over the writhing witches (a beautifully united Scripps, Libresco, and Claire Warden) and leading them in a rendition of "Moondance." Warden herself is a powerhouse as Lady Macbeth, terrifying and powerdrunk as she pushes her husband to seize the crown, then heartbreaking as she falls into madness. Michael F. Toomey's Macbeth demonstrates a clear contrast between the rather weak man and politician and the competent and controlled soldier he should have remained. When in battle, he is confident and adept - when pushed to deal in interpersonal affairs, to be party host or regal leader, he is ill at ease, and heavily reliant on his wife.

Design: As discussed above, there were many fascinating notions to the design, though not all were explored as thoroughly as I would have liked. Emmie Finckel's and Elizabeth Olear's set - a wall of interlocking chalkboards with a chalkboard floor to match - gives a world of potential to creating a mess of scrawls and dust, particularly when blood and violence is here conveyed, quite effectively, with chalk - a ghastly touch, as if the gore is instantly calcifying before our eyes. Claire Townsend's costumes, which include all five performers wearing black skirts over their slacks, is a satisfying and economic nod not only to the Scottish locale, but to the genderbending casting throughout the show. She infuses as well a grunge aesthetic to the corporate wear, turning suit jackets into vests festooned with safety pins. Trampas Thompson's fight choreography is not just well-built, but a satisfying demonstration of who Macbeth should have been, had he not gone down the politician's path - he is a soldier, and a damn good one.


Running: Now playing at The Secret Theatre (The Humanist Project) - Opened: April 14, 2017. Closing: April 30, 2017.
Category: straight play
Length: 2 hours, 40 minutes, including intermission.

Creative Team

Playwright: William Shakespeare
Music: Nolan Kennedy
Director: Andrew Borthwick-Lesie
Designers: Emmie Finckel and Elizabeth Olear (Set), Claire Townsend (Costume), Megan Lang (Lighting), Nolan Kennedy (Music Director), Trampas Thompson (Fight Choreographer), Jenna May Cass (Voice and Text).
Cast: Michael F. Toomey, Claire Warden, Welland Scripps, Zach Libresco, Josephine Wilson.

Michael F. Toomey, center, as Macbeth, with Welland H. Scripps, Claire
Warden, and Zach Libresco as the three Witches. Photo by Ariella Axelbank.

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