Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member.
Let me get this out of the way at the start: as a former high school teacher who taught the play nearly 100 times during my career, I consider myself to be pretty much an expert on Shakespeare’s Macbeth. I know this play inside and out, backwards and forwards. Hell, I practically have about 90% of it memorized. And I have seen many productions of it: as The Bard’s shortest tragedy, it is an accessible challenge for many directors and companies. I admit, however, that I have never before seen anything quite like Brian Fruits’ Saltbox Theatre Collective production, now playing at the Edge Off Broadway. Featuring many fine performances and some inventive staging, Fruits’ version of the play is in many ways highly commendable. His vision is clear, his witches are excellent, and his work with his actors is mostly outstanding. But there are some decisions he made along the way as he edited and worked with Macbeth that I found questionable and some cuts that unfortunately left moments obscure.
I suppose that most of my complaints might feel a bit esoteric to many people, especially since there is a lot to like about this Macbeth, starting with Jason Narvy and Stephanie Stroud as the title character and his wife. Narvy’s characterization is quite good. He doesn’t get all of the emotional power out of the many soliloquies, but his winking delivery of them to the audience makes up for it. He carries himself as a popular general should and plans out a heinous murder both intelligently and thoughtfully. He is at his best when Macbeth is firmly in charge of his actions. His wonderful delivery of a simple line of congratulations to the new heir to the throne, Malcolm (Warren Duncan—did they search for an actor with such an appropriate surname?), adds layers of depth to what follows: his first true proclamation of his intent. Stroud too is very strong as the woman behind the King. Her sly and falsely ingratiating approach to the arrival of Duncan (a very likable—which is the point—Josh Bomba) contrasts beautifully with her previous soliloquies in which she solicits the spirits of darkness to “unsex” her and make it possible for her to kill him. Her Lady Macbeth is a powerful creation, never more so than in the famous sleepwalking scene when her emotions overwhelm her. (More on that scene later.)
Other performances are also solid. Duncan makes a fine Malcolm (here the only son of the murdered king, as Fruits has eliminated Donalbain). His physical youth plays perfectly counter to the decisive ways in which he approaches both his father’s murder and the later preparations for war. Brian Bengtson is a strong presence as Banquo, and his angry expressions as the Ghost make it easy to see why Macbeth becomes so frightened. Ryan Smetana is well cast as Macduff. Though he does not show the early suspicions that lead his character to go home instead of seeing the new king crowned, he wears his emotions heavily in the final half hour, in which he seeks vengeance for Macbeth’s extremely callous slaughtering of his entire family, a scene that was unnecessarily confusing after one character tells Macbeth that his enemy has gone to England to be with that family; for a moment I was wondering if Fruits was going to cut the single most heinous act Macbeth commits. In that scene, though, Amanda Hays gives a most ingratiating performance as the doomed wife. I’ll speak of the witches, played enthusiastically and eerily by Wendy Venlos-Becker, Catherine Bustos, and Anne Ogden, a bit later.
Though the acting here is uniformly strong, and Fruits should be credited for his shaping of these characters, some of his other decisions here don’t work as well. This version of Macbeth comes in at a brisk 95 minutes long, and most of the edited dialogue still works fine. There are many times, though, when line cuts render comprehension difficult, leaving motivations and even thoughts incomplete or confusing. A few examples:
- As Macbeth prepares for the final battle, he has conversations with his servant about the state of affairs and with a doctor about the health of his wife. Here a single actor delivers both characters’ lines, resulting in a blended character that doesn’t really make much sense.
- One reason this happened was that Fruits cut the observers–the doctor and a gentlewoman—from Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene. These characters are designed to add outside commentary to the scene that helps the audience to understand that in fact that she is sleepwalking. Without them, she seems simply to be speaking to people who are not there.
- When the angry Macduff makes it to England, there is a scene in which Malcolm, the dead king’s son, verbally tests him to see if he is truly loyal. It’s a very long, slow scene, and it makes perfect sense to edit it. Almost all of it, however, is cut, leaving what remains to make little real sense.
There is no question that it is hard to edit Shakespeare, but in all cases meaning must be maintained. Here, things still sound suitably impressive to the unquestioning ear, but any real attempt to parse what is being said will too often come up empty.
Sometimes more confusing than the edits, though, are the many lines added to the script and the interesting but confusing switching of the order of certain scenes. Fruits interpolates lines (and an entire scene) from Middleton, Sophocles and Euripides in order to enhance the character of the witches, as his vision for the play leans heavily on the impact of the supernatural in Macbeth’s life. These witches are very successful creations as they are utilized by Fruits, who maintains them as an ongoing presence even in scenes where they don’t appear in Shakespeare’s original, but I would argue that they don’t need the artificiality of, say, adding a fairly lengthy scene in which they invoke and worship the goddesses Hecate and Nox. They are wonderfully creepy already; just let them be. (These witches are also the victims of one of the oddest script changes: in order to present a key scene without the requisite cauldron, their lines become “Double, double, toil and trouble, fire burn and vision bubble.” I’m not exactly sure what bubbling vision is or why that would be desirable, but there it is.)
Fruits also plays with the structure by placing scenes out of order. The most notable moment of this comes right at the start, as he opens the play with the murder of Duncan before flashing back to everything that led up to it. It is certainly an interesting notion, but without showing the benevolent Duncan generously bestowing honors onto Macbeth, some of the horror is diminished: we don’t know these people and it’s a murder without context. Elsewhere, the revised order of scenes has the same effect as poorly edited lines: it makes the moment confusing. Best example: Macbeth’s lords discussing his tyrannical and murderous rule before they have witnessed the chaos of the banquet scene, before they even know that Banquo is dead. It’s illogical.
All of this may be, as I have stated, somewhat esoteric. But there is one moment that is so intrusive that it utterly shreds the carefully presented conceptualization of the play. That is the moment when a character pulls out a gun and shoots his victim. It’s perfectly fine to play with Shakespeare in order to put your stamp on it. Baz Luhrmann famously turned the Montagues and the Capulets into Miami Beach street gangs. In such cases, guns are not only fine but pretty much mandatory. But this is not such a play. Its costuming, while not directly era-appropriate, still is designed to approximate the long-ago setting. The weapons are daggers and broadswords (or reasonable facsimiles thereof.) And then, out of nowhere, there is a gun. If Macbeth has access to weapons like this, what is he doing wasting his time fighting Macduff with swords? He should simply pull an Indiana Jones moment, take out his pistol, and blow the guy away.
In all, then, this Macbeth seems to me to be a mixed bag. If you are not bothered by these things, and I suspect most people probably won’t be as picky as I was and will allow the play to wash over them in a more holistic manner, the performances and the gloriously creepy use of the witches will undoubtedly make the play an enjoyable experience. If you know the play well, though, or if you value the clarity that is obscured by some of these decisions, you may (as I did) experience it as an overall strong production riddled with WTF moments. Either way, Saltbox, which is an ensemble that consistently has made interesting and challenging plays—last winter’s Boy Gets Girl is still one of the most ominous shows of the year—has once again created something that will leave audiences thinking.
Macbeth is a Saltbox Theatre Collective production now playing at the Edge Off Broadway, 1133 W Catalpa, Chicago through Aug 4. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and at theatreinchicago.com.