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We Laugh and Laugh—And Others Cry

Shakespeare Theater Company, Sidney Harman Hall, Washington, D.C.
Monday, May 1, 2017, M–21&23 (left orchestra)
Directed by Liesl Tommy

Macbeth slouches in a low-back thrown, wearing a red uniform jacket with medals, fringed shoulder braids and sash. On both sides, two young soldiers squat, both holding AK-47 rifles. the boy in aqua pants, striped shirt and sweater tied around his shoulders, the girl in striped blued pants, purple tea, and red hajib. In the background, Fleance in a suit has his arms raised.
Macbeth (Jesse J. Perez, center) holes up in Dunsinane with the two murderers he hired and now members of his rebel army (Anu Yadav, left, Brayden Simpson, right) in the Shakespeare Theatre Company production of William Shakespeare's Macbeth. Photo by Scott Suchman, Shakespeare Theatre Company. .

This qualifies as one of the stupidest productions of William Shakespeare's Macbeth I've ever seen. It also just might be the most brilliant.

Between the comic antics of the Macbeths (Jesse J. Perez and Nikkole Salter) and director Liesl Tommy's visual translation of Shakespeare's script to a modern African nation, even the least-dogmatic Shakespeareans might cringe. Meanwhile, the laughter in the audience grows with every contra-anachronistic gimmick. Among them: Lady Macbeth reads her husband's letter as an email on a computer tablet (audience titters); "The bell invites me," Macbeth says as his cell phone signals he's received a text from his wife that all is set for him to carry out the murder of Queen Duncan (audience giggles); the witches' cauldron spell is the text for a PowerPoint security briefing on "Operation Brinded Cat" (audience guffaws).

As Salter's Lady Macbeth so obviously feigns fainting when Macbeth reveals to the assembled company that he slew the two groomsmen suspected in Duncan's murder, the audience erupts in laughter while I shake my head. But I hit the breaking point at the Banquo-haunted banquet when, instead of a tormented warlord confronting the bloody ghost of the friend he just murdered, Perez's Macbeth behaves more like Billy Crystal having a panic attack. The more the audience roars, the more I sour until, suddenly, I realize how firm Tommy's version of Macbeth has gripped my psyche. This is two parallel plays in one production: while the Shakespeare drama I know so well works on my intellect, in my heart I'm experiencing a more urgent, more frightening drama unfolding right there in the middle of the Shakespeare Theatre Company's Sidney Harman Hall in downtown Washington, D.C.

Adapting Macbeth's prehistoric Scotland to modern Africa is not in itself a stretch. The Royal Shakespeare Company's Gregory Doran in 2013 staged Julius Caesar in similar fashion, intensifying the factional friction and coup psychology simmering in the scenes on either side of Caesar's assassination. Tommy's setting for Macbeth doesn't so much aim to enhance our understanding of Shakespeare's text or appreciation of his dramatic purposes as she aims to enhance our understanding of our own selves and appreciation of what we are.

"When I work on a play, I think about where I'm doing it and figure out what the pulse of that city is," Tommy says in an interview published in the play program. "Then I figure out how to get the play into the laps of the audience, so it's not an intellectual thing that they can just sit back and let wash over them—it feels visceral. It feels like it's a play for them" (emphasis in original).

Ironically, in order to bring Macbeth into our personal space, Tommy channeled her own experiences as a native South African to come up with an identity for the play's three Weird Sisters. "I thought about who benefits from creating catastrophic political instability," she writes in her program notes. "Who benefits from whispering into the ears of an ambitious general that their time has come, that they should murder for power? In my world, growing up on the continent of Africa, that answer is obvious: Western interests intent on our resources always find a way to install a corrupt puppet and during the spiraling chaos enjoy untold profit from our water, oil, diamonds, coltan, and so on."

Tommy doesn't have much Shakespeare experience in her bio (Hamlet at California Shakespeare Theater), but her directing bona fides are solid. She is the first woman of color to be nominated for a Tony Award for Best Director of a Play (Danai Gurira's Eclipsed) and chosen by Disney to helm its Broadway production of Frozen. The production values of Macbeth are engagingly simple. John Coyne's bare stage includes a series of subtle indentions and a concrete block wall across the back divided by a gold fissure running from one side to the other. Metallic fabric hangs from the rafters, including banners with a formal "M" at the point of Macbeth's coronation, and metal, neon-lit pipes dangle down at various times during the proceedings. Costume Designer Kathleen Geldard is most responsible for putting us inside an African nation at war with itself, with uniformed soldiers, rag-tag rebel warriors, tribal garb accessorizing Western wear, and many of the women wearing hijabs. Tommy also extends the play space to satellite stages on either side of the auditorium. On one of those stages sits a surveillance station occupied variously by one of the three Weird Sisters; Hecata makes his first appearance across the way, in cell phone conversation with the Weird Sisters.

Ah, yes, the Weird Sisters. I've seen some fantastical representations of the witches over the course of 15-plus productions of Macbeth, but none as unique as these because they are entirely human. David Bishins wears a camouflage battle uniform and flak jacket; he, with self-inflicted gunshot wound to his arm and knife slash to his cheek, becomes the bloody captain reporting on the opening battle to Queen Duncan (Petronia Paley). Tim Getman looks like an undercover agent with shoulder holster and a pleasantly personable lethality in his attitude. Naomi Jacobson is dressed in a suit and skirt, all businesslike even as she produces from her bag a severed hand that apparently belonged to the master o'th'Tiger. They "meet on the heath" via cell phone, mingle with guests at the banquet, and use the third murderer as a double agent. Their cauldron spell ("double, double, toil and trouble") accompanies slide-show images of various individuals, populations, and weaponry in play for "Operation Brinded Cat" (the First Witch opens the scene with the line, "Thrice the brinded cat hath mew'd"): "Scale of dragon" represents tanks, "tooth of wolf" artillery shells, "ravined salt-sea shark" gunboats, and so forth. "O well done: I commend your pains," says Hecate at the end of the briefing, with Stephen Elrod, using an eastern European accent, portraying the god of witchcraft in turtleneck and jacket like some James Bond technocrat villain. "And everyone shall share i'th'gains."

These witches do not have supernatural capabilities; they use technology for their all-seeing powers and "vanish" behind a blinding cell phone flash. Their power of persuasion over Macbeth relies on little bribes and promise of more to come (major payments of gold, cash, and cocaine he receives once he's king). Macbeth's and his wife's ambition do the rest. At play's end, with Macbeth dead, the three Weird Sisters repeat the play's opening passage—"When shall we three meet again?"—as the ghosts of Macbeth's victims roam the stage.

Some might find these modernized trappings grafted to Shakespeare's text insultingly silly, but Tommy's thoroughness in such applications is impressive. And she is thematically comprehensive, too. The murderers whom Macbeth hires hold a grudge against Banquo, representative of tribal revenge cycles that continue to plague African society. The murderers later become the foundation for Macbeth's army made up of civilians and, notably, children. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth arrive for the postcoronation procession in a car, he in formal military dress uniform and she in traditional African dress engage in a tribal-like dance with the crowd while Banquo (McKinley Belcher III) plays a jazzy soprano saxophone. The play's inherent conflict between pagan rituals and Christianity is here transferred to black magic versus Islam: the Macbeths often fall into chants, while every time other characters (Lennox, Macduff, Ross) invoke a prayer, they hold their palms up in supplication and join hands. Several key roles have been re-gendered in addition to Duncan. Malcolm (Corey Allen) is Duncan's eldest son, but Donalbain (Nicole King) is here her daughter; the child in Lady Macduff's scene is a girl (Trinity Sky Deabreu) instead of a boy; and both Ross (Sophia Ramos) and Young Siward are women, valiant warriors both.

Other choices have less redemptive value. Every time Macbeth goes into a psychological soliloquy or aside, everybody else on stage freezes, a device often clumsily executed and, by the time we get to his "Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow" speech, increasingly annoying. The knife fights are unconvincing, not only in their execution but in the setting (firearms and machetes seem more fitting). On the other hand, after Macduff and Macbeth stumble off into the wings in their climactic fight, we hear Macbeth scream before the unmistakable shwoooikt of his decapitation. That is convincing.

Tommy has assembled a capable cast, with three particular highlights. Lady Macbeth is a potent force in Salter's portrayal. She speaks the verse with soul-shuddering poetic power while exploring all the shades of Lady Macbeth's personality: bored arrogance in her opening scenes as she mixes pills with wine, bristling enthusiasm as she pushes her husband toward assassination and kingship, and enveloping fear amid the unsatisfied state in which she finds herself after accommodating Duncan's murder and attaining royalty. Belcher as Banquo is lushly musical in his line readings and displays a boyish charm before suspicion of his best friend and fellow soldier gnaws him into a guarded concern. His ghost, which returns again after the banquet scene to continue haunting Macbeth, has an aspect of stern bitterness, a soul troubled as much by Macbeth's betrayal as by the slaying. Myra Lucretia Taylor is an adorably comic Porter, riffing off members in the audience in her "knock knock" passage. She lingers beyond her textual presence, though, engaging in a comic display of rudderless moaning after the discovery of Duncan's murder, then taking on the role of the Old Man in the subsequent scene with Ross. Taylor also plays the Doctor observing Lady Macbeth's sleep-walking nightmare. The cast list divides Porter and Doctor with a slash, so I'm not certain whether Taylor is supposed to be playing one or two characters; if it is two, there's little to distinguish them.

Perez's Macbeth, meanwhile, is quite distinguishable, but I'm not being kind in saying that. It isn't just the laughable persona in which Perez plays Macbeth, it is his jarringly flat line readings, too—nothing iambic pentameter about them. With his Borscht Belt stand-up comic style of delivery, this Macbeth is a joke, and his tragedy turns into a 2:30-hour (plus intermission) laugh-fest. Shakespeare always mingles comedy into his tragedies (and vice versa), and Macbeth is no different; but the more monstrous Macbeth himself becomes, the less funny he should be, not more. Should we be portraying genocidal despots as comical in a play meant to be mirroring our times?

With bodies lying on the stage, the Weird Sisters talk on cell phones, one in combat gear standing on a table to the left, one in white shirt, black pants  and shoulder holster standing at the back center, the woman in business suit and skirt standing to the right.
The Weird Sisters agree to meet on the heath in the Shakespeare Theatre Company's production of WIlliam Shakespeare's Macbeth set in modern Africa. From left are David Bishins, Tim Getman, and Naomi Jacobson. Photo by Scott Suchman, Shakespeare Theatre Company.

But that's the point. We always do, making fun of outsized tyrants' ostentatious egos and lethal paranoia. Uganda's Idi Amin and Libya's Muammar Gaddafi, to cite African examples, were staples on Saturday Night Live skits. Hitler's mannerisms inspired ridicule in his time, Kim Jong-un today. Then there is President Donald Trump. Everything from his syntax and gestures to his lies and tweets inspires laughter and ridicule even among those who see in him an earnest intent via his words and actions to disestablish the foundational democratic institutions and traditions of the nation he is leading. In this theater, a few blocks from the White House, an audience is laughing at Macbeth's blustering bravado as he faces down the ghost of the best friend he had just murdered en route to sending his nation into "cruel times," as Ross says, "when we are traitors and do not know ourselves, when we hold rumor from what we fear, yet know not what we fear, but float upon a wild and violent sea each way and move."

Yet, Tommy's point is not to draw a parallel of Macbeth to Trump in leadership style. Macbeth is not the true villain in her take on Shakespeare's play. Nor is Lady Macbeth, nor the ubiquitous sinister forces of nature and mankind. The parallel of villainy comes through another character in the play. Tommy pointedly wants the visceral effect of her production to land "into the laps" of her Washington, D.C., audience; so we may be watching Western capitalist elements create chaos in Africa, but we would be remiss to assign ourselves the role only of the Weird Sisters in this manifestation of Macbeth. We are, in fact, double-casted.

"This paradigm of chaos creation exists not only in the past or even only in the developing world," Tommy writes in her program notes: "If anything, foreign interference has loomed very large in the American psyche of late." And while we've been laughing at Macbeth, Hecate, first appearing at the side of the theater, has been manipulating the digital levers of Macbeth's world via the Weird Sisters.

Eric Minton
May 3, 2017

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