Radio Macbeth SITI Company at Court Theatre

We’re somewhere in the 1940s, probably in New York. Six performers converge on the undressed and, at first, unlit stage of a theater. Joined by a jolly seventh, who seems to be the lead actor-director-Orson Welles of the troupe, they get to work rehearsing a truncated radio adaptation of Shakespeare’s iconic play about ambition and guilt, Macbeth. Then they get distracted.

There’s so much, big and little, that’s questionable about this touring production, created and performed by Anne Bogart’s SITI Company, codirected by Bogart and Darron L. West, and hosted here by Court Theatre. If, for instance, the troupe is rehearsing a radio play—and sometimes they seem to be only at the table-reading phase—then what do they need with a fully equipped theater? Or even with the microphones that are set up here and there around the stage? But the real question is, how does it serve Macbeth to cut it down to 90 minutes and surround it with an elaborate set of conceits apparently designed to transform it into a vehicle for a romantic triangle involving some World War II-era actors?

The whole thing could be chalked up to the east-coast theater artist’s tendency to think—a la Vanya on 42nd Street and Al Pacino’s Looking for Richard—that everybody’s as interested in their process as they are, or to demonstrate that theater making involves artifice. But it turns out that SITI’s choices, while not always sensible in terms of generating a coherent Macbeth, somehow manage to produce a pretty marvelous show.

Take that romantic triangle. Looking like a tubercular John Barrymore, Will Bond plays an actor who’s clearly sped up the passing of his prime with loads of alcohol and cigarettes. He’s engaged in some kind of domestic relationship with the fur-coated diva played by Ellen Lauren—you can tell by the way they’re screaming at each other as they enter. It becomes evident through body language, however, that she’s either having or desperately wants to have an affair with Stephen Webber’s Wellesian lead actor. And he makes eyes back at her every chance he gets, too. None of this provides any insight into Shakespeare’s play, but it’s invaluable all the same. Webber and Lauren’s passionate characters bring a tremendous shot of erotic energy and rage to their roles as that regicidal pair, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Bond’s cuckold, meanwhile, generates neat resonances, first as King Duncan, whom Macbeth kills, and then as Macduff, who kills Macbeth.

The idea of couching Macbeth as a tragedy inside a radio play inside a rehearsal has its dividends, too. The actors wear street clothes, perform both on and off book, make their own sound effects, and do mundane things like drink coffee, smoke, and take naps as they run through the script. The blocking, while artful, is also casual. And for all the fervor of the troupe’s dark liaisons, there are plenty of comic turns, as when Makela Spielman punctuates a speech by chomping on the spoon she’s been using to stir her coffee, or Akiko Aizawa recites magnificently in a Charlie Chan accent. All this can be taken as part of the layered-realities shtick. But its ultimate consequence is to pull us out of the drama of Macbeth and incline us to hear it as dramatic prose instead. And that can be electrifying. I know it’s a ridiculously self-evident thing to say, but listening to Shakespeare’s language in this context made me realize what an amazingly good writer he was. And how mind-bogglingly insightful. I was struck as I’ve never been before by Macbeth’s profound—and from his point of view, utterly apt—nihilism when, on hearing of Lady Macbeth’s death, he calls life “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” It’s one thing to think you know what makes Shakespeare the Bard, another thing entirely to feel it in your gut.

It can be argued that SITI’s radio trope brought about my aha moment, just as it can be argued that their love triangle trope enlarges on the theme of betrayal in Macbeth. Maybe so. But both effects could have been achieved with less fancy conceptual footwork, by means that left the poor play intact. If, say, Bogart and West wanted to add some erotic tension to the relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth—as has certainly been done before—they could have offered the cuckoldry scenario in the (actual) rehearsal process and let the ensemble play it as subtext.

In the end, though, Radio Macbeth isn’t about erotic tension. It isn’t even about Macbeth. I’d say this paradoxical piece of work is meant to be nothing more or less than an old-fashioned, lip-trembling tribute to actors and acting. It’s about people who, on the one hand, can transform a spoon into a punch line and, on the other, can’t help but make their most devastating secrets part of the show. It’s about layering reality as a way of life.

So, as it happens, the answer to the real question is no, Radio Macbeth doesn’t serve Macbeth—or serves it only incidentally on its way to other things. And yes, the whole thing can be chalked up to the theater artist’s tendency to think that everybody’s as interested in their process as they are. In this case, they may be right.v

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