Re-imagined ‘Macbeth’ in modern mode a winning production

Macbeth dress rehearsal at Northern Stage in White River Junction, VT on Tuesday, September 27, 2016. Copyright 2016 Rob Strong

Robert David Grant takes a super turn as Macbeth. All photos Copyright 2016 Rob Strong

By David Lampe-Wilson
©2016 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Ghosts walk Northern Stage’s production of Macbeth, playing through Oct. 23.  Set in the present and performed in modern dress, this re-imagining may not be appreciated by Shakespeare traditionalists.

Swords are replaced with automatic weapons, armor becomes Kevlar vests and some basic themes are twisted to suit the creative vision of Director Stephen Brown-Fried. Still, it is a high-quality production that grabs our attention and eventually wins us over.

The audience is initially confronted by a vast wasteland of rubble and chain link fencing topped by barbed wire that is a backdrop to a pillar of video monitors that pumps out images of death and destruction. Three soldiers enter this hellscape and are slaughtered, only to reanimate as The Weird Sisters, Shakespeare’s trio of fortune and doom. It is a disorienting moment and the harbinger of many such moments to follow. Everyone killed in this production continues to haunt it until the final blackout.

Robert David Grant is an able Macbeth. Blessed with matinee idol looks and a fine grasp of the work at hand, Grant maneuvers the many machinations and bouts of faint-heartedness with ease. He commands our attention with a well-measured pace and sparkling-clear language. Grant’s strength grows as the play unfolds to its tragic end: We believe that his Macbeth is a worthy soldier whose ambition overwhelms his better judgment and poisons his soul.

Macbeth dress rehearsal at Northern Stage in White River Junction, VT on Tuesday, September 27, 2016. Copyright 2016 Rob Strong

From left, Virginia Ogden, Rigel Harris and Carene Rose Mekertichyan.

Trisha Miller keeps the pace going as Lady Macbeth, but we often lose her meaning in her haste. Still, her “mad” scene is effective and believable as her husband’s isolation and her own guilt plunge her into her own private hell from which she will never escape.

Kudos to Avery Glymph, Hollis McCarthy, Damian Thompson and Stephen Lee Anderson for their command of language and character.

This Macbeth is a multimedia extravaganza, but the visuals and the language stand in stark contrast, and it is difficult for the audience to reconcile this classic play with its modern interpretation; it is as if there are two separate plays being performed simultaneously.

Macbeth equates masculinity with violence, but here we are faced with women playing soldiers and assassins, with everyone made culpable. Horror is piled on horror and, even as the play ends, the director applies a visual coda of haunting despair. The production is so tarted up with visual tricks, sound effects and relentless music that the poetry of the play is too often obscured and strands of the story are lost to the cacophony; yet, for all its faults, you have to admire what is on display.

Robert David Grant as Macbeth.

Robert David Grant as Macbeth.

Director Stephen Brown-Fried has assembled an able team in Set Designer Bill Clarke, Costume Designer Mona Clinton, Lighting Designer Dan Kotlowitz, Sound Designer Toby Alyga and Video Designer Alek Deva. Although these creative minds serve the director’s vision, they have yet to fine tune the vision to enhance, rather than overwhelm, the play.

Macbeth is recommended to those with a sense of adventure and a willingness to overlook over-exuberance. It is also recommended that you make yourself familiar with the script before going. It is Shakespeare’s shortest play and well-worth scanning before you go.

Macbeth continues through Sunday, Oct. 23 at Northern Stage, The Barrette Center for the Arts, 74 Gates St., White River Junction. Performances: Tuesday through Sunday . For tickets and information, call 802-291-9009 or visit its website here.

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About the Author: After 30 years as a theater critic and arts editor for a Connecticut daily newspaper, David Lampe-Wilson transplanted to Vermont with his wife and two cats.

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