The Theater at Monmouth’s Macbeth takes some pains to convey an out-of-time Scotland for its horrors of avarice. The inter-scene music is aggressively modern — industrial metal, dissonant synth-rock. Colored lights pulse through layers of gray and fraying sheaths. Is this a steam-punk world? Cyber-punk? The costumes keep us wondering: leather vests over blood-splattered t-shirts; straight-up Victorian jackets and bowlers. Setting thus feels unsettled in this Macbeth, directed by Dawn McAndrews and performed in rep as part of this year’s Monmouth season, themed “Power, Passion, and Privilege.”
Macbeth himself (Josh Carpenter), at a dinner party, appears in a slick fawn-colored suit with a ‘seventies collar, and — once kinged — in a houndstooth jacket with a flashy fur collar. This Macbeth is kind of a hipster. He’s young and rangy, with spiky, mussed hair, often wearing skinny black pants, and he exudes a hipster’s self-absorbed, self-conscious enthusiasms. He comes on to power as if it’s something fascinating to be consumed, to let intoxicate him, to let fulfill an ideal image of himself.
He and Lady M (Lucy Lavely) are palpably in love and sexual synch, primed for collusion. You can see everything in how they look at each other: He, aroused, a little in awe, and absolutely dependent; she, ardent but often humoring, better-knowing, hard. Lavely’s savvy Lady M, in copper silk, black lace, and chunky heels, has a deep, hungry voice. She jumps and straddles Macbeth head-on. Her arm claps Banquo’s shoulder in greeting with unapologetic force. She knows her own strength, and it is legion.
As things get murderous, production design plays strikingly with the scary and ghostly — there are many sharp sounds for the Macbeths to jump at, spiraling further into jittery fear, and their bloody hands entwine with a wet intimacy that made me think creepily of afterbirth. Banquo’s ghost mouths silent words — far more unsettling than mute staring. And Mark S. Cartier’s Siward crushes Macduff’s baby with a gruesome (yet almost comically loud) crack.
The toll on Carpenter’s Macbeth brings him to wild eyes, erratic shrieks. Some few, precious moments he plays lower: After a lot of shouting at Banquo’s ghost, everything drops to silence, and Macbeth, now quiet, remembers his guests: “I do forget.” The moment is both a relief from the screaming and a crucial counterpoint. Carpenter, who brings it down so well, yet spends much time in the upper levels, could stand to rest and recoil in more moments of quieter horror.
In supporting roles, Wardell Julius Clark’s Banquo has an endearingly wry affection for Macbeth. Ben Shaw’s Malcolm, earnest and fresh-faced, plays in fine contrast to J.P. Guimont’s MacDuff, whom the horrors age affectingly over the course of the play. Rare moments of humor are nicely honed and immensely refreshing, as when Mark S. Cartier’s porter makes ribald much of his “equivocator of lechery” speech, peeing into and then amiably jostling a wine pitcher.
And the Witches, wearing traditional masks on the crowns of their bowed heads, rag-hung bodies contorted, are mesmerizingly eerie in design. Their movement, however, stalls; at times, they seem to run out of things to do onstage. And the actors playing them (Lavely, Guimont, and Mackenzie Shaw, who also plays Lady MacDuff) should keep their faces more fully obscured, to avoid lifting the illusion until they want to. They do want to: at key points, the actors instead raise human faces to deliver their lines. Does the choice imply another delusion of Macbeth, seeing MacDuff’s and Lady M’s faces where they are not? Or that the witches themselves are some sort of Janus-faced figments?
It’s one of several choices in this Macbeth that are compelling, but that don’t feel fully realized into a coherent whole. The world of the play, though apparently meant to convey an any world with its techno, bowler hats, and traditional masks, winds up not feeling like any particular world. These Macbeths, performed with brio and ferocity, are frighteningly knowable humans. I also want to know where they live.
Macbeth | By William Shakespeare; Directed by Dawn McAndrews; Produced by the Theater at Monmouth, 796 Main St, Monmouth | Through August 18 | www.theateratmonmouth.org
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