The disclaimer to start this might give a way a little too much of my personality, but here it goes. I love Macbeth. No, you don’t understand, it is a borderline obsession. I have multiple Macbeth inspired tattoos. Want to read modern fiction that relates to the tale of Macbeth that I’ve been trying to adapt into plays for years? We can talk over libations. If you don’t fully grasp it yet- I ADORE SOME MACCERS! So when I went to attend Baltimore Shakespeare Factory’s production, I was hesitant. I want to love it, but I am also picky about my interpretations. This one is okay. That is all. I think it was ambitious but falls a little flat for my liking.
Macbeth, or the Scottish play, is a tale of a young hero who has an encounter with three “weird sisters” who give him predictions for his future, including taking the throne. He becomes obsessed with the idea, and with the help of his ruthless wife, plans to murder the King and take the crown. He becomes insatiable in his quest for knowledge and power, and that is ultimately his undoing. He faces ghosts, legions of troops, riddles about the future, and the death of all those close to him as he marches headlong into his own demise.
In classic BSF style, there is a half hour of pre-show music prior to the performance. In the past it has been the actors singing either modern and contemporary songs or songs that relate thematically to the text and play you are about to see. In this case we were serenaded by the musical stylings of Jim Stimson and Pete Walker. The program indicates that they are part of Devil’s Tailors, a Scottish folk group and damn can they wail! We were pleasantly amused by the Scottish dancing and the bagpipes. I am not sure Bitchin Bagpipe Playing is a phrase, but I am about to make it one. Although my date said he did miss the modern songs of BSF, I thought this was apt and amazing.
The actors vary in talent and degree in this performance. I was awed by the sheer force of Valerie Dowdle as Lady Macbeth. Her expressions on stage even when not speaking underscore perfectly what is going on- especially in the Banquo Ghost Banquet scene as Macbeth starts to publicly unravel. She has been in other BSF productions and the take away I get from watching her is a calm cool presence of mind that she has got it all together- always. I was also very pleasantly surprised by Jared Michael Swain as Duncan, along with other roles. His Duncan was effective, including mannerisms and rich details. I had a little trouble hearing him when he turned from me to face the other side, but all in all I think he was a dynamic actor and I might have cast him as Macbeth (more on that later). Elizabeth Ung was delightful and comical as Ross (labeled Rose in the program which is a funny error to make, Ross the nobleman to a brave noblewoman- if it was an error pretend it wasn’t- I like it). Her swagger in Act 5 as she prepares for battle is phenomenal. The three witches also had some excellent practiced mannerisms- each had an assigned level and mood about her- making them harmonize and yet distinct. Autumn Koehnlein, Kaitlyn Fowler, and Lauren Romagnano are impressive and dexterous. The inclusion of additional witches is a nice touch to the play, but makes it confusing in the program to determine who is who. There are at least six actors with “witch” attributed to their name. Dennis Colin Graham was also a surprise. The expression there are no small parts, just small actors comes to mind. Graham does well with the bit parts given and shines each time he takes the stage. I wish his Porter was a little drunker and sillier but I also know BSF likes a snappy line delivery in keeping with iambic pentameter which doesn’t jive with drunken slurring (lol).
The cast all deserve a round of applause for playing 3, 4, 5, and in one case 6 different parts with minimal down time in between. The costume shifts fit the purpose with rich layers that can be taken off and put on over in a pinch. (More on that later too). Some were more mesmerizing than others. My biggest disappointment was Ben Fisler as Macbeth. Fisler has an accomplished bio and I am sure he is a great actor; I just didn’t think he was a great Macbeth. I thought he was not varied enough in his emotions- the most famous speech “tomorrow and tomorrow…” was flat, emotionless, and too quickly delivered. I had trouble hearing him over the fans and air conditioning at times, and although I have the play mostly memorized, my date was very lost in plot development. I might be too critical here though- I have a very rigid idea of what Macbeth should be and Fisler just didn’t do it for me. I enjoyed Melissa McGinley as Banquo with her fire red hair looking very much the part of a Scottish warrior. And kudos to BSF for leaving in the Hecate scene- deftly delivered by a creepy and menacing Nell Quinn-Gibney. (For those not in the know- Macbeth is supposedly a cursed play and some superstitions surrounding this scene have cut it from notable productions for fear of evoking the “curse.”)
The fight scenes were epic and underscored by the musicians. Resident actor, fight choreographer and MacDuff, Tegan Williams, put in some work with axes and staffs especially and it shows! The sword fights seemed not quite as epic, but maybe that is because she was wielding mother fucking axes!
In the beginning the Witches tell us we are in Scotland and that the audience is a part of the action. It is a nice gesture but doesn’t really come to fruition until the end when pieces of Birnam Woods are passed out for the audience to disguise their numbers when attacking Macbeth’s castle. I would have hoped for a little more interaction after the warning. The Witches also had the arduous job of opening and closing that heavy trap door like a bazillion times (okay, like 10 but it looked cumbersome). Inside was a cauldron with fans flaring flames of fabric into the sky- nice touch. The underground portal is also used for the apparitions to be real figures in Act 4- I loved that too!
The costumes by Kendra Shapanus were rich and elegant. Relying on the foundational pieces BSF has in rotation, she then crafted layers of interesting textures and fabrics that brought each character notably to the forefront. I am a sucker for costumes that reflect the finer points of literary analysis (cause English teacher and costumer- duh)- and I loved that Lady Macbeth was in a black night gown when called from bed after killing Duncan, but a white dressing gown when losing her mind in the end. Her guilt transfers to innocence as she acquiesces her guilt for mental instability. The witches’ hodge-podge of light airy fabrics and earth spun burlaps all in the colors of autumn (get it- Autumn Koehnlein was a witch!) are well executed and lovely to leer at.
The production was ambitious and definitely has its own take on the story while preserving the text, as BSF is known for doing. The music was fantastic, the fights were epic, and the acting was a mixed lot of performances. But for a Sunday afternoon get away, I was entertained and enjoyed myself.
SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO? Macbeth is a notable Shakespeare play and BSF is loyal to the text. The musicians were freaking fantastic, the character shifts in actors were notable and awe-inspiring, and the fights were other-worldly. The acting is not consistent and it is hard to hear over the AC and fans, so sit as close as possible to the stage. Looking for an escape? Scotland might be your ticket away from this brutal Baltimore heat.
Running through July 22nd at the Great hall at St. Mary’s. Running time 2 hours and thirty minutes with one fifteen-minute intermission.