At the end of “Mac Beth,” Macduff severs Macbeth’s head and then she takes a selfie of it, posing with two of her fellow murderous teenage girls, all dressed in parochial school uniforms.
This is one of the cleverest moments in Erica Schmidt’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy, produced by Red Bull Theater at the Lucille Lortel, in which seven actresses portray schoolgirls who are putting on “Macbeth” in the middle of an empty lot. Four of the actresses are each assigned a single role — Macbeth, Banquo, Lady Macbeth or Macduff. The other three portray the witches and five other characters each – or, more precisely they portray schoolgirls performing these characters from the play.
The production’s cleverness will not be enough for theatergoers who seek the depth and especially the coherence of the original play, even though the adaptation uses only the text from the play, albeit somewhat rearranged and trimmed to 90 minutes. “Mac Beth” ultimately feels like little more than an engaging exercise. But that “more” includes Isabelle Fuhrman’s increasingly intense performance as Macbeth, and some arresting stagecraft that produces a few scenes both chilling and thought-provoking.
Two erudite essays in the program try to make the case for the importance of Schmidt’s adaptation. One points out how Shakespeare’s play already contains “the haunting power of unsettling female figures” (meaning the three witches); this all-female production, Professor Tanya Pollard writes, “highlights and intensifies” the witches’ “shaping power.” The other essay, by dramaturg Aviva Fox, cites infamous news stories of groups of adolescent girls committing murder together, and argues that teenage girls share a strong bond based on their fast emotions, raw desire for experience, and mutual feelings of being misunderstood. Both essays expect a jolt for the audience in the adaptation’s upending of Macbeth’s heavily masculine aura.
This might sound convincing in theory, and there is an unmistakable female “Lord of the Flies” vibe (“Lady of the Flies?”) in a handful of scenes that involve a heavy downpour of rain, fire, smoke, bloodied baby dolls, orgiastic incantations and a bright red umbrella. But there are long stretches in which, despite the stentorian dialogue, the girls are acting playful, as if the words didn’t mean anything to them. It’s hard to distinguish between the actresses portraying adolescent girls who are performing Shakespeare badly, and the actresses just performing Shakespeare badly. Since most of them have previous Off-Broadway credits, I think it’s fair to put this uncomfortable ambiguity on Schmidt, who is directing her adaptation.
Still, an all-female “Macbeth” does have its rewards, whatever its flaws. For one, it makes you hear anew such of Shakespeare’s lines in the play as Lady Macbeth’s
unsex me here,
And fill me, from the crown to the toe, top-full
Of direst cruelty
as if only the male sex could be cruel
and think twice about the feeling of invincibility the Macbeth feels when he’s assured:
“Fear not, Macbeth; no man that’s born of woman Shall e’er have power upon thee.’”
until Macduff reveals he “was from his mother’s womb Untimely ripp’d.”
as if a child delivered through Caesarean section were somehow not “born of a woman.” Male misconceptions about female conception go back a long way..
Click on any of the photographs by Carol Rosegg to see them enlarged.
by William Shakespeare adapted and directed by Erica Schmidt
Set design by Catherine Cornell, costume design by Jessica Pabst, lighting design by Jeff Croiter, and sound design by Erin Bednarz.
Cast: Isabelle Fuhrman as Macbeth, Ismenia Mendes as Lady Macbeth, AnnaSophia Robb as Witch 1 etc, Sharlene Cruz as Witch 3 etc, Sophie Kelly-Hedrick as Witch 2 etc., Lily Santiago as Macduff, Ayana Workman as Banquo
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $77 to $117
Mac Beth is on stage through June 9, 2019