While Shakespearean plays can call for a cast of thousands, there’s a particular charm to seeing these large epics approached by tightly casted companies, such as The Humanist Project’s five-person production of Macbeth. Using techniques familiar to anyone who’s enjoyed Bedlam’s recent fare, this ensemble manages to transform from hero to villain to halpless lord to short order chef with just a whirl of costume and a change of accent or stance.
This sense of magic is particularly appropriate for Shakespeare’s Macbeth, which is rife with witches, apparitions, and daggers of the mind. However, the danger of this form is that the tricks—which are numerous and largely satisfying—can come at the expense of real emotional connection to the heart of the story. The Humanist Project’s ensemble strives to find that balance, and comes—with only a few misfires—fairly close to managing both sides of the scale.
Claire Warden as Lady Macbeth is the real stand-out. Differentiating her several other characters with ease and an impressive physical prowess, she tackles “Unsex me now” with the full weight of terror for what she’s contemplating, while her relationship with her husband varies beautifully from supportive to furious to smug, making her last dénouement into the full realization of what she’s wrought that much more poignant.
As the titular Macbeth, Michael F. Toomey seems less at ease with his role than expected: although perhaps that’s the point. This Macbeth is not the raging warrior or any man full of vaulting ambition: he’s a pawn, a nervous chess piece unsure of the majority of his actions. While this leads to some wonderful direction from Andrew Borthwick-Leslie early on to highlight the relative incompetence of these two murderers, it doesn’t sit quite as well as the play progresses and blood has its blood. Toomey’s verse work, too, seemed to lack the dynamism that previous Macbeths have discovered; a shame for one of Shakespeare’s more verbose leads.
Filling up the ensemble, Welland H. Scripps delighted with large physical changes from his powerful First Witch, to his overly-humble Duncan, gumshoe-invested Macduff, and nervously manacled Seyton. He even sports a Russian-flavored murderer, obviously meant to juxtapose to Toomey’s red tie wearing Macbeth.
Josephine Wilson is a dynamo as Banquo, bringing a much needed morality whether advising or haunting Macbeth. Her obsequious Lennox and sensual Hecate are well delineated (although Hecate’s singing of “Moondance” mid-play, while seductively rendered, was a conceptual misstep for me). Her power and command of language and emotion made it difficult to watch her Lady Macduff: less for the horror of that scene than the frustration that this actor wasn’t given even juicier roles to inhabit.
Zach Libresco was charged with both sons of Duncan, a conceit that worked half the time but may have been better executed with a tighter cut of the script. His star turn came with the Porter, a show-off piece in any production, which allowed Libresco to let his comic buffoonery run wild. One wishes that his clown work might have extended to his witch, but it was readily picked up in his Macduff son who brought real light to the gentle interplay before the horrific murders.
Credit must go to the design team, particularly scenic designer Emmie Finckel, assisted by Elizabeth Olear, whose abstract chalkboard world defied the usual tendency towards blood, blood, and more blood, and paved the way for hands covered in calcifying chalk. This was echoed in Claire Townsend’s costumes: deconstructed suits and modified black kilts, ornamented with red stitching or frayed with white handprints. Megan Lang’s lighting created dramatic tableaus of light and dark with instruments hung at unusual angles to achieve a sense of disconnect. Trampas Thompson’s fight choreography is solid, with a penchant for neck-slitting that’s truly and happily cringe-worthy. And praise must go to Shiela Bandyopadhyay for her movement choreography, most notable in the witch’s intricate hand choreography to create some Medusa-inspired imagery.
But for all of that, how does the play play? While director Andrew Borthwick-Leslie makes the obvious nod to our current political climate, and provides a fairly clean interpretation of Shakespeare’s classic, there is the sense that Borthwick-Leslie is capable of more. His hope was to present Macbeth in the abstract: a vision which succeeded. But in so doing, each small symbol becomes enormous. So in this chalkboard world, the audience found itself wanting a greater and more focused proliferation of outlined bodies on the floor, or “bloody” handprints on the wall. The use of chalk for Macduff’s infant child (too good to spoil here) was an excellent effect, but the sense of collaborative play that clearly and happily pervaded the rehearsal room would have been supported more by a definitive plan for the use of symbol throughout. That said, there are some scenes of absolute genius: keep an eye out for the short order chef scene in act one, and the closet scene in act two.
As a portrait of ambition and regret, The Humanist Project’s Macbeth is a good night out at the theatre. The company’s inventiveness will intrigue those who have enjoyed Eric Tucker’s work, and Shakespeare fans will be satisfied by a new examination of a timely subject. Recommended.
Macbethperforms at The Secret Theatre in Long Island City, through to Sunday, April 30, 2017.