Macbeth, Defiant Theatre, at Viaduct Theater, and Julius Caesar, National Pastime Theater. Director Christopher Johnson’s research into Anglo-Saxon witchcraft in preparation for this Defiant Theatre production of Macbeth has inspired images of breathtaking splendor: assassins in Edward Gorey whiteface led by a death specter commanding a horde of grotesquely masked demons, nubile witches clad in shrouds that cover less than a bikini, Hecate depicted as a fiery-eyed giant. An incantation and animal sacrifice by Malcolm call forth an avenging angel who presents him with a magic sword. A horrified Macduff is forced to do battle with the ghost of his slaughtered wife. An array of solo and ensemble combat builds in intensity with never a repetition. And there are ominous rolls of thunder, blinding flashes of lightning, and stereophonic nocturnal noises.

The hazard is that the spectacle tends to overwhelm the text. Except for one nicely balanced scene shared by Sean Sinitski’s Macduff, Jim Slonina’s Malcolm, and David Skvarla’s Rosse, the characters’ words accompany rather than fuel their actions. And while Christopher Thometz in the title role delivers his usual capable performance, Krissy Shields comes off as a featherweight Lady Macbeth.

It’s better, of course, when the dramatic elements don’t have to vie for our attention. Still, one can always go back and reread the script.

Julius Caesar is essentially the chronicle of a government coup, its spectacle the ugly poetry of civil war–a parallel emphasized in National Pastime Theater’s production by an epilogue incorporating the Gettysburg Address. This is a universe in which death is neither an instrument of justice nor a liberator of the soul; instead it’s a tool the powerful use to pursue their personal ambitions.

The particulars of this Roman succession are recorded history, and Shakespeare’s speculation on the involved parties’ attitudes provides dramatic interest–a documentary structure that suits National Pastime’s visceral approach to material. Director Laurence Bryan brings out a populist subtext by making Rome’s commoners a crowd of masked mummers, while its patricians wear the somber suits of Washington bureaucrats (and Mark Antony the trendy threads of a Hollywood sybarite). Despite this orderly veneer, each bloody deed is exposed as the outrage it is, with both murderers and murdered crying out in agony.

Sometimes the show’s volume gets close to the edge, but it never escapes the players’ control. Indeed, they create an immediacy that conveys all the more vividly the fury, despair, and frustration of partisans driven by expedience to take action without the leisure of introspection.

–Mary Shen Barnidge