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Theatre in Review: Mac Beth (Red Bull Theater/Lucille Lortel Theatre)

Isabelle Furhman, Ismenia Mendes. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

Literature, dramatic or otherwise, has so many examples of mayhem-spreading adolescent girls -- the putative witches of The Crucible, the young murderesses of the film Heavenly Creatures, and little Rhoda Penmark, the homicidal antiheroine of The Bad Seed, immediately come to mind -- that the idea of an all-schoolgirl Macbeth may not be all that much of a stretch. (The program notes for Erica Schmidt's production reference the Slender Man case of 2014, in a which two twelve-year-old girls stabbed their friend nineteen times. It was the victim's birthday.) Making a case that young ladies can behave in a thoroughly depraved manner isn't the same thing as supplying a company that can persuasively deliver William Shakespeare's verse, however. Hanging its hopes on a single gimmick, this Mac Beth (note the separation between the syllables) is a high-decibel, low-insight evening that is most effective at exposing the limitations of its cast.

The idea centers on seven private-school classmates meeting in a field to enact what superstitious actors prefer to call The Scottish Play. A prologue in the script says, "These girls have a 'Macbeth' club. They agree to meet, in an abandoned field, after school, to 'do' the play." Well, I guess it beats field hockey. Four of them take on the roles of Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, Banquo, and Macduff, with the other three portraying everyone else. (Schmidt has cut the text extensively, coming up with a hundred-minute version that eliminates various elements, most notably the murder of Lady Macduff and her son.) The production opens with the ensemble trio tossing their copies of Macbeth onto the ground before assuming the roles of the Witches; beyond the unusual casting concept, this is a straightforward reading of the play, if not an inspired one.

The slightly altered titled offers a clear indication that the text takes a back seat to the notion of schoolgirls performing a bloody Elizabethan tragedy. Rather than using a concept to illuminate the text, this is a show about female teens performing Macbeth. The action is filled with moments s0 borderline cutesy that they can't help but call attention to themselves: Instead of contacting his spouse by letter, Macbeth texts Lady Macbeth with news of meetings with the witches; she reacts with a bout of hysterical screaming more appropriate for an unexpected sighting of Taylor Swift. A tense moment is greeted with several cast members shouting, "Awkward!" Macbeth is crowned by the Witches to the strains of Beyoncé's "Bow Down." The murdered Banquo is splashed with what looks like grape juice; the character's post-death appearances feature the actress Ayana Workman's best zombie imitation. (Well, Banquo is one of the walking dead.) Before the finale, most of the killings look like something from a spoof of a teen slasher picture.

Some of these bits set off bouts of nervous giggles at the performance I attended; this was also true of certain line readings that were seemingly intended to translate the bloody fury of the play into the overheated world of shifting adolescent alliances. (These are the real mean girls, after all.) There are occasional moments -- very brief ones, to be sure -- when the text is suddenly revealed in high relief, but in terms of unlocking the meaning of Elizabethan verse drama, I struggle to recall another company so thoroughly tongue-tied. Isabelle Fuhrman (Macbeth), Ismenia Mendes (Lady Macbeth), and Workman (Banquo) have classical training and are capable of doing strong, insightful work in a variety of styles and periods. (This past season, Mendes did fine work as a frustrated restaurant worker in Bernie and Mikey's Trip to the Moon, and Workman displayed a solid grasp of period style in the Mint Theatre production of The Price of Thomas Scott. Annasophia Robb, a member of the ensemble, is a skilled and busy television actress. But in adopting schoolgirl personas, they have limited their vocal equipment, favoring high-pitched voices with narrow ranges and sing-song intonations; most of the time, they rattle off their speeches at top speed, opting for squealing and screaming whenever possible. Thus, a rich text, loaded with emotional color, is flattened and made monotonous.

The production's meta element -- the spectacle of girls enacting a medieval Scottish version of Game of Thrones -- becomes especially dominant at the eleventh hour, when, during the final battle, the bloodshed becomes real, the result of the participants' furious overidentification with their role-playing. Whether this is a fierce assertion of girl power or an oddly retro comment about female hysteria I will leave to others to work out. But the late-in-the-day bloodshed proves to be thoroughly unconvincing.

If Schmidt boxes in her cast with a straitjacket of a concept, she has gotten excellent work from her design team. Catherine Cornell -- a new face in these parts -- has supplied a stark, grassy field for these violent goings-on, complete with a ratty abandoned sofa for the murderers to hide behind and a pond, at stage center, that is especially handy for washing out those damned spots. (I could do without the impressive, but distracting rain effect that washes the stage and cast during Macbeth's second encounter with the Witches.) Jeff Croiter's highly dramatic lighting takes the action from a late-afternoon look to a moon-washed night. Jessica Pabst's school uniforms are just the thing, especially the gray capes with plaid linings. Erin Bednarz's sound design includes such tunes as Billie Eilish's "Bad Guy" and Miley Cyrus' "Wrecking Ball," as well as barking dogs, birdsong, and passing cars.

The problem with the production is one of translation: The fierce intensity of female adolescence in its specific contours doesn't find a meaningful analogue in the militaristic, largely male world of Macbeth. (In concept, it is similar to the similarly shaky Shakespeare's R&J, in which a quartet of Catholic schoolboys act out Romeo and Juliet, in part as a way of venting their homoerotic impulses.) The program notes suggest that the play is haunted by feminine power in the Witches and Lady Macbeth, an interesting point that proves to be neither here nor there in deploying these after-school dramatics. (The Witches, often portrayed as elderly hags or androgynes, are strikingly ambiguous figures, and Lady Macbeth's steely embrace of murder as a path to power has little to do with the free-floating emotion on display here.) Whether or not this concept could be made to work is, at best, unclear, but, in this production, the way to dusty death is paved with dullness.-- David Barbour

(24 May 2019)

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