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Retooling William Shakespeare’s Macbeth for the 21st Century could be a tragedy in itself—its own “double, double, toil, and trouble.” But while the concept of Chris Stezin’s experimental adaptation of the play—in which a power couple resorts to Machiavellian tactics to get ahead—is timely and intriguing, it is just not totally unique in its execution.
Keegan Theatre’s Mack, Beth lands the audience in modern day America, in lieu of its traditional Scotland setting, substituting a story about a king and his aristocrats with one centered on the CEO of a billion dollar tech company and his protégées. William “Mack” Macllraith, played by Andrew Keller, is the right-hand man of CEO Robert Duncan, eager to take the reins of the massive empire. Elizabeth “Beth” Wright Macllraith (played by Jennifer J. Hopkins) is Mack’s wife—a savvy PR executive who convinces Mack to take Duncan down after his boss screws him over once again.
The duo plots to destroy Duncan’s reputation one evening, lacing his alcohol with sedatives. He awakens the next morning to find that sexually explicit photos of him with an underage girl have miraculously emerged in the media. It’s an indirect way to kill an enemy without actually killing an enemy in the 21st Century. As an ode to the famous tragedy, Mack tells Beth, “You know, in the old days, we would have just killed him in his sleep…”
Stezin’s concept is only half the work of retooling Shakespeare’s classic to modern times, and Director Matt Ripa and his actors delve out the color and complexity necessary in bringing it to life on the stage. Still, there’s a staleness in some actors’ delivery that doesn’t quite match the drive of the plot. Keller’s performance is literal, but doesn’t evolve much to show the character’s transformation from a frustrated executive to an accomplice in murder. Perhaps it’s because Mack’s motivation to take down Duncan is linear—he wants to be wealthier—whereas Macbeth’s goal is more visceral in that he wants to protect his legacy and his children’s future (in the play, Mack and Beth are married but childless). At least Macbeth’s desire was to be king, so his heirs would, too, succeed him.
Hopkins dominates as a seductress in the role of Beth, enticing everyone—including Duncan’s third man, James Shaw (Josh Sticklin). Sticklin hums along as number three, until the end of the second act, during which his rage after a tragic event lifts his performance. And Duncan, played by William Aitken, is believable as the CEO, but seems to be solely driven by his indulgence in alcohol; the key setup for his downfall.
For a modern setting in the cyber age for this Shakespearean drama, a better one would be the tech bubble of Silicon Valley. Instead, the time and place is ambiguously listed as “now” and “here.” But if this play is supposed to be set in 2017, where the tech industry is dominated by twenty and thirty-something CEOs, they should dress as such: hoodies and jeans instead of loose-fitting business suits and sheath cocktail dresses. (In an interview with Keegan, Stezin says he hopes to attract younger audiences to theatre with these kinds of classical revampings).
The three witches of Macbeth are instead three “geeks” in Mack, Beth, which connect us to that world: They hack into accounts, hangout in a coffee shop all day, and use algorithms to predict what’s going to happen to Duncan’s company. But there are problems with adapting the roles in this modern day setting, like Mack asks one of the roaming geeks how to perform a simple hack into someone else’s computer; a task someone high up at a major tech company should know how to do.
Scenic Director Matthew Keenan, however, creates a set that is reminiscent of a tech billionaire’s home: Huge, detached, modern with endless white walls and abstract art; and up top from the deck, the characters are privy to the best views in the city (in the opening scene the actors boast about the view). The lighting design works well, but there are music cues for transitions to virtually every scene, making the sound design distracting.
Mack, Beth has well-choreographed drama, but it doesn’t step far enough into 2017, wherein tech talents have created things like face recognition on drones, virtual reality headsets, and Amazon’s Alexa. Even the weapon of choice that ends this tragedy isn’t a gun, it’s a knife.
At the Keegan Theatre to Feb. 11. 1742 Church St. NW. 35-$45.