Follow-ups seldom meet expectations. I’m not the fan type, but I was so awestruck by Shozo Sato’s 1983 Kabuki Macbeth that I made a keepsake of a little piece of iridescent fabric that had fallen off somebody’s costume and landed in the aisle. I still have it. Sato went on to create kabuki versions of lots of other western classics, but none of them could hold me the way the first did. Because it was the first, and perfect.
In 2015, Aaron Posner and Teller (the silent member of Penn & Teller) collaborated on a staging of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, presented at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, and I was awestruck again. The show, I wrote at the time, was “not just visually striking and plenty of fun, but willing and beautifully able to get at the paradoxes that have made the play fascinating to audiences since, oh, say 1611. . . . Nothing exists merely to make us say wow—though plenty does.”
You see where I’m going with this, don’t you? Posner and Teller are back at Chicago Shakespeare now, following up on their Tempest with a Macbeth that’s sharp and intriguing and definitely worth a look. But if you loved the earlier production and you’re hoping to recapture the magic—in any sense of that word—I suggest you adjust your thinking.
It’s not just the problem of high expectations that makes this Macbeth feel like a disappointing success. To some extent it’s the material. The Tempest harbors an awful lot of ugliness, when you think about it. Prospero’s narcissism makes him an erratic and angry ruler; he’s got a lot to answer for, both on his island kingdom and back home in Milan. But his every motion through five acts propels him towards redemption by way of wonder. There’s a silly delight in watching Ariel the sprite bollix up his master’s enemies and a solemn joy in the wedding masque prepared for the young lovers, Miranda and Ferdinand. The whole script offers opportunities for delight that Posner and Teller exploited to the fullest.
Macbeth? Not so much. The new Thane of Cawdor and his wife are doomed for sure by the start of act two. In place of sprites they’ve got witchy Weird Sisters; in place of august fertility goddesses, Hecate. Abandon all hope of delight ye who enter here—though the proceedings get a nice shake of humor thanks in large part to Ian Merrill Peakes’s wry, unorthodox Macbeth.
Of course, there’s still the possibility of a good scare. But the awe is lacking in that regard as well. Two of the play’s staple moments of horror—Macbeth’s visions, first, of a floating dagger and then of the murdered Banquo (Andrew White) at a banquet—unfold in less than surprising ways. Indeed, the Banquo passage is marred by blocking that telegraphs an upcoming effect: you’ve got to wonder what’s going on behind courtiers when they bunch up unnaturally, as if posing for a group selfie.
The Weird Sisters (McKinley Carter, Theo Germaine, and Emily Ann Nichelson), on the other hand, are appropriately uncanny, and the big moment when they conjure up malign spirits (“Double, double, toil and trouble”) satisfyingly creepy. They’re also ubiquitous in Posner and Teller’s telling, showing up to watch and intervene even when their presence isn’t specified in the text.
Which is telling in itself—an indication that this Macbeth is ultimately less about generating coups de theatre than about the source of the mayhem it chronicles. Crucially, the Sisters are onstage for the opening scene, created by the directors out of whole cloth, in which Chaon Cross‘s Lady Macbeth mourns over a small coffin containing what appears to be her own stillborn baby. Before long they gather around her to perform a transformation, making Peakes’s Macbeth appear in her place.
The sequence is apt in a literary sense: the lives and deaths of children is a constant theme of the Scottish tragedy, as is Lady Macbeth’s desire to become a man and, failing that, to play out her ostensibly masculine ambitions through her husband. But what does it mean? That the couple’s bloodthirsty behavior can be traced back to a particular trauma? Too modern, psychological, and reductive. I’m inclined to think the Sisters embody something primal and parasitic, and that they pick their victims pretty much the way the otherworldly beings in The Mothman Prophecies do. As a professor in the movie explains: “You noticed them, and they noticed that you noticed them.”
I don’t know. I could be wrong about that. The Posner/Teller Macbeth at least makes it worth the wondering. v