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The spectre of South Africa under Apartheid comes up again in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s new gloss on Macbeth, that old song of ambition and assassination egged on by witchery. Director Liesl Tommy grew up in segregated Cape Town, and her family emigrated to the U.S. when she was 15.
She’s chosen to locate her Macbeth in some unnamed, majority-Muslim country in Africa, one ravaged by civil war and peopled by child soldiers and meddled with by Western superpowers. In her production, the assassins Macbeth dispatches to kill his rival Banquo are just kids, which makes the First Murderer’s line “We are men, my liege” land harder. In her most inspired revision, the three witches are clandestine military operatives out to prop up a puppet leader and sow political unrest.
They’re played by David Bishins, Tim Getman, and Naomi Jacobson—two big guys and a woman, and all dressed in fatigues, the men sporting conspicuous wigs and/or dye jobs. They snap photos of the corpses on stage with their cell phones. When they’re not in the current scene one of them will frequently be huddled in a command post stage right, monitoring the action inside Dunsinane via headphones. When we meet their superior officer Hecate (who isn’t identified in the program, curiously), his Vladimir Putin-by-way-of-Boris Badenov accent pushes the show into more porcine—and far less absorbing—territory.
As the Porter, Myra Lucretia Taylor, too, has been given license to ham and a visa to wander into the front rows of the audience. During the press performance she got flummoxed and botched the famous line about how booze “provokes the desire but takes away the performance.” It might’ve been funnier reversed.
This schizophrenia persists throughout. Though Macbeth is Shakespeare’s shortest play, this production still takes three hours (including intermission) thanks to momentum-sapping filigree like the full-on dance number, or the extended coronation scene wherein set designer John Coyne rolls the newly crowned King and Queen onstage in a Rolls. There’s a jolt of spectacle, and then you spend the rest of the scene wondering how they’re going to get that expensive car back into the wings. The answer is that they just back it up, a little bashfully, without even bringing down the lights.
But the show’s biggest problem isn’t bloat: It’s that headliner Jesse J. Perez is a confoundingly bloodless and inert Macbeth, one never believably enslaved by ambition or rage or fear or lust. To hear him wail “How full of scorpions of my mind, Dear Wife!” is to wonder no more how Jerry Seinfeld might’ve delivered the line. He’s also absent any chemistry with Nikkole Salter, who is a good Lady M when she’s not stuck with Perez as her scene partner. Costume designer Kathleen Geldard puts her in a Harvard sweatshirt for her introduction—an easy joke, but a good one. That’s about the level of this Macbeth, which has great margins but a squishy core. It is a tale told by an introvert, full of sound and mild irritation, signifying not enough.
At Sidney Harman Hall to May 28. 610 F St. NW. $44-$123. (202) 547-1122. shakespearetheatre.org.