European Repertory Company

at Cafe Voltaire

The way Shakespeare wrote Macbeth, we’re certain never to see a perfect production: the emotional load is too great, and the much-tested principals often slump under its weight. If Macbeth is strong, Lady Macbeth usually is not; more frequently Macduff and Malcolm aren’t big enough to counter the play’s evil, and the tepid dialogue the Bard has given them doesn’t help. In this, the shortest of Shakespeare’s tragedies, almost all the scenes peak rapidly (except the dreary Malcolm-Macduff palaver in the fourth act), and approaching them by half measures is deadly.

But though there are plenty of ways to mess up Macbeth, there are more means to play to its strengths; and every good production, including this inaugural venture by the European Repertory Company, adds to those assets. Though uneven in performance and aggressively streamlined in concept, this staging by Yasen Peyankov (a Bulgarian theater artist who came to Chicago in 1990 to seek asylum) presents an old play in bold new ways; and given the innovations, it’s less crucial that every role deliver the goods.

Set in Cafe Voltaire’s neo-medieval-dungeon cellar, this is a starkly simple Macbeth, with candles guttering against the rough walls. Chief among Peyankov’s changes is his treatment of the witches: here the “Weird Sisters” (Jennifer Sweeney, Michelle Wilson, and Mary Kay Blaschke) stage-manage the action. Acrobatic screamers, in quieter moments they sensuously caress or pretend to kill each other, then spring back to “life.” They play with the thread of life (here a thick rope) and transport the props used by their mortal prey. Finally they claim Macbeth’s corpse and hover unseen over the new king’s throne, as if a new tragedy were brewing.

Equally interesting is Peyankov’s take on the evil Macbeths, who fear their own ambition as much as their victims do. Almost from the start Macbeth (Dale Goulding) seems cut off by his crimes, and that isolation makes him desperate as well as dangerous. In this production’s most fascinating reinterpretation Lady Macbeth (Heather Prete), far from goading her husband, seems terrified by the evil she unleashes; in Prete’s intriguing portrayal, lines that usually scream defiance sound defensive, carrying a pathetic weight of denial and foreshadowing the mad sleepwalking scene. (Here Lady Macbeth gains a new motivation, too: Kevin McCarthy’s Duncan, a medieval Clarence Thomas, harasses her the moment he gets her alone in the castle.)

Almost mild-mannered at the beginning and stiff in his movements, whether intentionally or not, Goulding’s Macbeth gradually exudes disgust at everything he does; it’s a good choice because Macbeth is his own worst enemy, a much more powerful enemy than Macduff. (In an interesting change Macbeth speaks his “Tomorrow and tomorrow” speech right at his wife’s corpse, making his loss palpable.) The British-born Goulding’s technical skills serve the role’s poetry and rhythms; if he’d crank up the energy level, especially when Macbeth finally faces an unpredicted fate, he’d enlarge the lines as well as carry the play. But no question, his sword-carrying showdown with Macduff is stage combat of the most risky and fear-inspiring kind.

Other changes are less persuasive, like eliminating the scene in which Macduff’s wife and children are slaughtered–one of the few direct depictions of Macbeth’s cruelty. The ghost of Banquo does not appear in the banquet scene, a mistake since we must see the evidence of Macbeth’s guilt even if the guests do not. (And as there were only two guests, Lady Macbeth’s line “Stand not upon the order of your going” was unintentionally hilarious.)

Two other English actors provide surefooted work: Simon Perry is a superb Banquo, delivering his lines with infectious confidence and a tight grasp of their content, while Mark Guest gives the besotted Porter’s fall-down comedy monologue a rambunctious self-pity that comes right out of the man’s hangover.

Matt Yde’s Macduff, clad like the other men in the basic black of an indeterminate period (embellished with chain-mesh armor), resembles a sort of Scottish terminator; but though he ferociously conveys the revenging warrior, he doesn’t show us the bereaved father and husband–the feelings that explain the vengeance, of course. Charley Knapp makes a handsome, princely Malcolm, but he needs to bring out the son’s anger–if only to hold his own with Yde’s rampaging Macduff.

The other roles vary more than they should–but it’s just the feast-or-famine unevenness that usually besets the Scottish tragedy.