Chicago Actors Ensemble

As you enter the Chicago Actors Ensemble’s space on the fifth floor of Preston Bradley Community Center, an usher greets you. “Thank you,” she says in her blandest have-a-nice-day voice. “Power corrupts.”

On the stage before the show, a woman in tie-dyed dance clothes moves modernly to the sounds of punk rock coming from a portable cassette player. Five people sit in the center of the nearly bare black stage in a circle of green light, engaged in what appears to be some magic energy-channeling exercise, quietly speaking lines from Shakespeare’s Macbeth. To one side sits a long-haired, androgynous young man, shuffling tarot cards by candlelight. On the other side two women sit doing homey activities–one knits, the other spins a top. These women are playing Lady Macduff and her daughter; when the play starts, they will be loudly murdered.

This is the Chicago Actors Ensemble’s version of Macbeth–fragmented, environmental, experiential, and creative. It begins with the murder of Macduff’s family–an event placed at the center of Shakespeare’s actual text–and then jumps backward and forward in time to tell the story of the Scottish warlord who, egged on by his viciously ambitious wife, murdered his way to the throne before being unseated in a rebellion led by the vengeful Macduff.

Assuming most audiences are familiar with Macbeth, director Eric Ronis and his cast have set out to find new resonances in the great text through unorthodox restructuring and visualizing of key scenes. CAE’s Macbeth starts out as a semiabstract, witchy ritual–almost a morality play. But just as the long first act comes to an end, there’s a total shift in style. Accompanied by a burst of the Beatles and the ringing of an alarm clock, the actors, who are in basic black tights and tunics, put on modern business suits and cocktail dresses–and the action shifts to a contemporary corporate setting.

There’s a certain arbitrariness in this. It’s as if the company couldn’t decide whether to do Macbeth as ancient fable or modern melodrama, and so decided to do both. In the much shorter second and third acts, the production shifts quickly and confidently between the two approaches. Key scenes–Lady Macbeth convincing her husband to pursue his bloodthirsty course of action, the murder of King Duncan, Macbeth’s visitation by Banquo’s ghost, the witches’ “bubble, bubble, toil and trouble” incantation–are played out twice or more in different styles. Several actors play multiple roles, and Lady Macbeth is played by not one but two actresses–as if one Lady Macbeth weren’t enough for poor Macbeth to deal with!

There are some intersting touches: the use of pop music (Patti Smith’s “Because the Night,” the Beatles’ “Piggies,” Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” and a probably inevitable “That Old Black Magic”); a modern-dress Macbeth delivering his “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” soliloquy into a Dictaphone; the three witches appearing sometimes as writhing, hissing bacchantes and other times as sweetly smiling flower children; the murder of Duncan presented as a silent, hideous shadow show. But there’s nothing really new to be learned here, certainly nothing revealing the power-pursuing Macbeth as any sort of “archetype of man as murderer,” to quote from CAE’s press release.

This reconstructed Macbeth fails to add up to anything beyond a potpourri of interesting but undigested ideas for the simple reason that the ensemble fails to match Shakespeare’s language. Joe Quinn as Macbeth is especially inadequate to the poetry, and his performance is a critical weakness in the show. In the supporting cast, only Alexandra Main, Jillian Hanson, and Joe Feliciano as the three witches and Tim Decker as Macduff come close to meeting the demands of the text. Whatever physical, visual, and interpretive strengths this (or any) production of Macbeth may have, the core of the play remains the words–not only their meaning but their feeling, their textural vitality. Without that, CAE’s Macbeth signifies, if not nothing, a good deal less than it aims for.