You get a plethora of witches in the new production of Macbeth at off-Broadway’s Classic Stage Company. Rather than the usual measly three performers, nearly the entire nine-person ensemble recites the witches’ lines at one point or another in this version directed by John Doyle. But that’s pretty much the only thing you get in abundance in this wan, undernourished staging.
Doyle’s minimalist style has permeated nearly all of his stagings at the theater where he serves as artistic director. Sometimes the results are revelatory, notably in such musicals as 2017’s Pacific Overtures and last year’s Carmen Jones. More often, it simply leads to confusion, especially when, as in this case, the actors play multiple roles, often with no regard for gender or even costuming differences. Even if you’ve seen Macbeth dozens of times, you’ll probably wind up confused at some point. This is a production that should come with its own CliffsNotes.
It does, however, have one major thing going for it: namely, Corey Stoll, playing the title role of the Scottish general who murders his way to that country’s throne, urged on by his ambitious wife. Stoll is quietly becoming one of our foremost Shakespearean actors; this is his third commanding lead performance in as many years, having scored triumphs as Brutus and Iago in the Shakespeare in the Park productions of Julius Caesar and Othello, respectively.
The actor (currently on season three of HBO’s The Deuce) knows his way around intrigue and ruthless ambition thanks to his memorable turn as the ill-fated, not-so-recovering addict congressman on Netflix’s House of Cards. He doesn’t do flashiness, instead grounding his Shakespearean performances in reality; he speaks the poetic language fluently but conversationally, and infuses even his most villainous characters with psychological complexity. His Macbeth may have blood on his hands, both literally and figuratively, but he’s always sympathetic.
Stoll’s excellent work, alas, gets lost amid the directorial conceits, or, more accurately, lack of conceits. Once again, the scenery (also designed by Doyle) is bare-bones, consisting of little more than a wooden throne and benches that look like they came from an IKEA fire sale. Ann Hould-Ward’s costumes are similarly lackluster, heavy on dark plaid and virtually indistinguishable from one character to the next. You begin desperately wishing the actors would wear signs indicating who the hell they’re playing at any given moment.
The performers certainly work hard. Indeed, they’re barely given a break, since, as is Doyle’s wont, they’re forced to stay onstage for the duration, even when not participating in the action. As a scene plays out, the rest of the ensemble strikes still poses in shadowy light, as if sitting for a perverse Burberry ad.
Once again, there’s heavy use of gender reversal, most notably with the casting of Mary Beth Peil as King Duncan. The veteran actress, who has many musical theater credits (Follies, Anastasia, The King and I), certainly cuts a striking figure in the regal role, but she’s even more effective in the moments when she wanders around the stage hauntingly keening with gorgeous musicality. Another example of cross-gender casting is Barbara Walsh, who also has no small amount of experience with musicals (Falsettos, Company) and is subtly effective as the nobleman Ross.
The casting of Stoll’s real-life spouse Nadia Bowers as Lady Macbeth undeniably adds to the production’s heat; there’s certainly no lack of chemistry between them. But while Bowers delivers a creditable performance, she’s undercut by the frantic pacing. Here, Lady Macbeth’s mad scene flies by so quickly that it barely has impact. The other players make variable impressions, with the most striking turns coming from Raffi Barsoumian’s Malcolm and Erik Lochtefeld’s Banquo.
The play has been streamlined to a sleek 100 intermissionless minutes, which somehow has the paradoxical effect of making it feel not fast-paced but rather slow and plodding. The evening feels more like an elaborate rehearsal than a fully conceived production, as if everyone involved was in a hurry to get it over with so they could head out for after-theater drinks. Or maybe I was simply projecting.
Venue: Classic Stage Company, New York
Cast: Barzin Akhavan, Raffi Barsoumian, Nadia Bowers, N’Jameh Camara, Erik Lochtefeld, Mary Beth Peil, Corey Stoll, Barbara Walsh, Antonio Michael Woodward
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director and set designer: John Doyle
Costume designer: Ann Hould-Ward
Lighting designer: Solomon Weisbard
Sound designer: Matt Stine
Presented by Classic Stage Company