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In a mist-filled forest, they writhe and stoop, dark-robed forms tending to their terrible, half-seen business, and their echoing incantations advance a malevolent mathematics: “Thrice the brinded cat hath mewed./Thrice, and once the hedge-pig whined…Thrice to thine and thrice to mine./And thrice again, to make up nine…”

The witches, to put it mildly, are satisfyingly otherworldly—and yes, Michael Kahn has tinkered even with the architecture of their opening sorceries, cutting and splicing the Weird Sisters’ strangled speeches (and much else besides) to make a Macbeth that moves like some dark and dreadful thing on horseback. From that violently atmospheric beginning—a spectral sabbat intercut with battle scenes illuminated by lightning—to the play’s grisly and inevitable conclusion on another bloodied field, the Shakespeare Theatre’s production traffics in bold and sometimes strangely beautiful images. Michael Chybowski’s lighting design gives shadows and silhouettes almost as much to say as the people speaking that famously queasy poetry; Linda Cho’s costumes, largely variations on black and white and bloody, have a brutal vocabulary all their own; and the almost abstract lines of John Coyne’s monochromatic set frame stage pictures nearly as eloquent as the verse.

If the acting can be similarly showy, the play’s story arc has rarely been so cleanly described. The treacherous prophecies, the ambitious politicking, the spiraling guilt and paranoia that drive Macbeth to repeated murder and his wife to outright madness—it’s all laid out with admirable clarity in Kahn’s version, which simultaneously does what it can to humanize characters who can seem in incautious hands like cartoon villains. Patrick Page’s Thane of Glamis, particularly, is plenty likable, especially at the outset, when he’s still the battle-bloodied hero fresh from honorable victory. And if children aren’t the first creatures that come to mind when you think of the Scottish Play, questions of dynasty and inheritance are nonetheless a constant concern in this most adult of tragedies—and Kahn’s ambiguous final tableau is just the last of several arrangements calculated to send patrons up the aisles with their heads full of thoughts about generations and legacies, cycles of life and death, and the ever-treacherous tides of political fortune.

If only sophisticated symbolism and intelligently managed imagery were enough, everyone could go home happy. Purists will want well-modulated performances, too, though, and the two at the center of this play, while they’re certainly fearless, won’t strike anyone as particularly subtle: You’ll find plenty of angst and anger here, but look elsewhere for the psychological shadings that might illuminate what’s going on upstairs at Chez Macbeth. Page shifts pretty quickly from troubled to haunted to barking mad, while Kelly McGillis, who’s undeniably a powerful performer, comes on so strong from the beginning as Lady Macbeth that you wonder whether she’ll have anything in reserve for the sleepwalking scene. She finds more, as it turns out, but only by dialing up the anguish to an amplitude that wouldn’t be out of place in Verdi’s version of the story. By the time she gets to “Out, damned spot,” the top, it’s fair to say, is just another receding point in her rearview mirror.

Still, the two of them have a certain chemistry—the story’s stoppered sexuality gets plenty of play here, and there’s an unmistakable sense that the Macbeths’ is a marriage grounded in more than mere ambition. More than lust, too: Part of McGillis’ outsize grief comes from her dawning awareness of what she’s helped do not just to her husband, but to what they were together.

The ancillary lords all look more or less identical, so audiences may find themselves wondering Which one was Banquo, again? and Who is that terribly dull corporate-lawyer type who keeps yammering about stuff happening offstage? (Richard Pelzman, it turns out, playing Macbeth’s cousin Ross.) But there are plenty of performances to relish, especially if you’re willing to give in to the production’s fevered air. A coldly efficient Matt Seidman makes Macbeth’s sidekick Seyton every inch a plain-dealing villain, and Ted van Griethuysen turns in both an interestingly decadent Duncan and a riotously drunken Porter. (The latter’s antic speech, in that breathless moment between the murder and its discovery, encapsulates most of the play’s moral trajectory, and with a considerable assist from Kahn and Chybowski, van Griethuysen decodes every last line of it for the wondering audience.)

Naomi Jacobson, Sarah Marshall, and Jewell Robinson make deliciously strange witches, and there’s something keenly interesting about the fact that they turn out to have day jobs—in Macbeth’s court. Early on, they throw off those crone’s robes to reveal the severe, Puritanical blacks that seem to be all the rage at Inverness, and when you connect the dots you realize Kahn’s playing with a whole handful of ideas—about fundamentalism, perhaps, and about how the Evil One manages his manipulations in the mundane world. (Anybody else think it’s interesting that the Shakespeare Theatre opened its new season with a play in which double-dealing advisers steer a feckless ruler into unjust and unnecessary conflict? That one of Macbeth’s big pictures is the portrait of a nation wrenching itself back to sanity after an illegitimate interregnum has divided it internally and ruined its reputation abroad?)

What’s best about this Macbeth is its awareness of the power—and the perils—of imagination. We talk ourselves into all kinds of fears; night noises morph in our minds into night terrors, and before we know it we’re checking all the doors and windows, heart pounding with an unreasoned and unreasoning dread. But we talk ourselves out of fears, too—and that, as Macbeth and his missis discover, is where we get lost. Whatever its weaknesses, the richly scarifying imagery of Kahn’s staging offers a reminder that a healthy fear of the dark is part of what keeps us human.CP