Twenty minutes. That’s about how long it takes to get used to the nudity in José Carrasquillo’s eerie, intelligent, and visually arresting Macbeth out at Clark Street. Sure, the novelty of seeing actors clad only in daubs of dried mud wears off after awhile, but a lot of the credit goes to what Carrasquillo’s done with the porter scene. During this brief comic dialogue between Macduff (Christopher Henley) and Macbeth’s doorwarden (Sasha Olinick), the latter underscores a humorous point by casting a quick, appraising eye toward Macduff’s, um, bagpipe. The director is both calling us out and off-handedly channeling whatever residual discomfort we’re harboring into a quick laugh; you can feel the audience relaxing in its cathartic wake, and thereafter the nudity officially ceases to be a big deal.
But Carrasquillo clearly wants the nudity to remain a big deal throughout, and that scene is one of several where he seems to be working against himself: He’s bravely stripped his actors of any outward manifestation of character in an effort to get at the play’s darkest and most primal essence. That we become inured to the nudity so swiftly and more or less completely, however, has the inadvertent effect of making that choice seem punishingly literal: naked bodies = naked emotions. It soon starts to feel like an extra layer of artifice instead of the absence of one.
Carrasquillo’s director’s note name-checks Borges and García Márquez, among others. Makes sense: If the term “magic realism” means anything at all, Macbeth certainly falls under its rubric. There’s sinister magic woven throughout the play, not just in the “double, double, toil, and trouble” bits, and Carrasquillo makes sure we feel it, viscerally, in every scene.
In fact, the stuff Carrasquillo’s doing with the play’s magical elements (the Witches and ghosts, yes, but also the sinister atmosphere that pervades the production) is, well, magical. The three Witches (Ashley Robinson, Heather Haney, and ManShu Chang) are creepy as hell, and they are omnipresent. When they cross from one side of Giorgos Tsappas’ raised, tricorner stage to another, they take on aspects of bats, owls, wolves, and other creatures of the night. During moments such as King Duncan’s murder, they take up positions below the lip of the stage and peep in on the action, smiling dark, conspiratorial smiles at one another. And whenever Robinson, Haney, or Chang assume another role in the production, they stand apart and sort of shudder into character, as if literally taking on a new shape.
When not onstage, the rest of the play’s actors stand motionless in the gloom amid Marie Schneggenburger’s towering, treelike totems. It’s an eerie and darkly beautiful effect, set off by Ayun Fedorcha’s expressive lighting. As they head back to the stage, however, Carrasquillo has the actors mime a horse’s gait with a slow, knees-up stride. It’s meant to be balletic but doesn’t quite make it there.
So it’s not the magic that’s the problem here, it’s the realism. Because, in the end, the nudity doesn’t make sense. On paper, doing away with the most conspicuous signifiers of the barrier separating Macbeth from the Witches underscores Macbeth’s complicity in his own fate. But emotionally and dramatically, it doesn’t scan. Macbeth’s vaunting ambition may be a base, primal drive, but his self-awareness and frequently articulated guilt set him apart from beasts and the Witches and anyone else who’d walk around with his goolies all adangle. The banquet scene, in which Lady Macbeth fights to keep up appearances while her husband wigs out in front of company, is all about maintaining propriety and avoiding suspicion, motivations that are precisely the opposite of primal. Disputes over rank and title are at the heart of the play’s action, but without any visual manifestations of this hierarchy (and with the 10 actors switching in and out of the play’s 28 roles so often) the lines between characters blur to near obscurity.
That said, Daniel Eichner makes a convincingly guilt-wracked Macbeth. He embraces the introspective elements of the character, letting us see the revulsion at his own bloody deeds, but Eichner also has a good time with the Thane’s more self-satisfied moods. If you don’t always hear the meter and music in Eichner’s delivery, you always hear the passion in his balls-out (sorry) declamatory style.
As Lady Macbeth, Kathleen Akerley gives a quiet, controlled performance. It’s not quite brittle political wife, it’s not scheming opportunist. What she’s doing with the part is subtle—so subtle that, frankly, it eluded me. Her choices effectively mute the character of Lady M, rendering her less toothsomely evil and more plainly matter-of-fact. (Akerley makes her presence much more palpably and satisfyingly known during her brief scene as Hecate, Queen of the Witches, which is a stunner.)
Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s shortest plays, but this production doesn’t feel it. It runs into particular trouble where many stagings do: A late-in-the-fourth-act dialogue between Macduff and exiled prince Malcolm (Jay Hardee) that goes on for freaking ever. It’s not the actors’ fault, but you’ll probably find yourself staring imploringly just offstage, where Carrasquillo’s three astonishing Witches crouch and cackle, awaiting their cue.