Macbeth @ Chicago Shakespeare Theater

4 out of 4 stars

“Nothing is but what is not” and that is certainly true for CST’s spring production of the classic Scottish play. Macbeth stretches belief in closing the 2017/18 season this spring at the new versatile venue The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare. Macbeth is adapted and directed by Teller (of Penn & Teller) and Aaron Posner—the celebrated creative duo behind CST’s The Tempest, winner of the Jeff Award for Best Production in 2015. Shakespeare’s psychological thriller immerses audiences in a world of dark magic and ambition, delving into the twisted psyches of the ultimate power-hungry couple. 

Ian Merrill Peakes plays the titular role of Macbeth. Peakes conveyed a power within his performance with his unflinching eye contact with the audience during monologues, as well as realistic traits of fidgeting and shaking motions that heightened his character’s psychological breakdown. Helen Hayes Award-winner Peakes is a mainstay at the Folger Theatre, where he has taken on some of Shakespeare’s most challenging roles including Iago, Timon, and King Henry VIII. Macduff, a foil to Macbeth, is played by Timothy D. Stickney. Upon King Duncan’s death, Macduff seeks order after Macbeth claims the throne rather than Duncan’s heir, Malcolm. Stickney’s performance holds impressive pacing and a powerful cadence. He wonderfully illustrates righteousness that has been shoved aside by lust and greed. Stickney is a longtime Shakespearean performer with credits at The Public Theater, The Old Globe, and Stratford Festival, Stickney is also known for playing the recurring character R.J. Gannon on ABC’s One Life to Live for nearly 15 years. 

Posner shared, “At our core, Teller and I are both populists. We passionately believe in Shakespeare for everyone. And an amazing story like this—full of magic, music, witches, blood and beheadings—is designed to have everyone sitting on the edge of their seats to see what thrills are in store.” Under such direction its only expected that the main draw of this production would be magic. Legendary magician Johnny Thompson—whom Teller describes as “undisputedly the greatest living source of magical knowledge”—returns as Magic Designer. His vision brings this performance to the next level with the incorporation of magic as a critical focus in this dark tale. Individuals vanishing and appearing out of thin air, as well as hallucinations being experienced by the entire audience not just the actor. While there was one technical hiccup early on in the first act, I for one was not phased. The overall performance was not diminished, as some of my fellow audience members may have thought. I applaud the ensemble who continued through with professionalism. Let’s just chalk it up to the Scottish curse at work on opening night, yes? 

 

Magic technique being the corner stone, the set has to not only be visually appealing, but also dynamic and efficient for the illusion to be performed. The Yard’s vast space is a perfect blend between CST’s classic Courtyard Theater and the excitement of a Shakespeare in the Parks production. Dan Conway’s masterful scenic design takes Shakespeare’s words and manifests them into the stage. The atmosphere blends the outside and inside together through trees, gothic iron work and more. Three red doors stand ominously center stage underneath an attic space filled with discarded wooden chairs and relics amid a string of Edison bulbs. The space described as “Hell Above” in a playbill director’s interview, seems otherworldly and magical. The choice in exposed string lights (similar to the the CST Shakespeare in the Park 2016 production of Twelfth Night) do not only invoke wonder, but amplifies the idea that the production occurs somewhere between real time with modernization, yet in a time past. 

This attic space is where the percussionist Hecate (played by the talented Ronnie Malley) resides accompanied often by the trio of Weird Sisters—played by actor-singers McKinley Carter, Theo Germaine, and Emily Ann Nichelson. The witches constant presence and impressive vocal range is eerily chilling. Sound Designer Andre Pluess composes original music and orchestrations—creating a haunting soundscape with a series of unique instruments invented especially for this production by master percussionist Kenny Wollesen, a longtime collaborator of Tom Waits. 

 

Nothing is static within this performance, from the lighting to the impeccable blocking. Chaon Cross is bewitching as the surprisingly complicated and manipulative Lady Macbeth. Cross conveys an empathetic charm in the traditional perspective between femininity and masculinity, yet the production explores this deeper through trauma in the loss of a child. This adds a hauntingly poignant motive in the character’s self-inflicted plight, particularly in her monologue. Thom Weaver excels at heightening these moments with quick light cues and choice colored gels. The color palette, varied lighting and blocking never allowed the eye to get stuck or the mind bore. The audience experience is sharpened and escapes into the world of tragedy and bloodshed. Matt Hawkins once again is worthy of great praise in his choreography with the short sword in this performance. Hawkins’ brilliant work escalates the death scenes and brings adrenaline to battle sequences. 

Another reason to gush over the creative direction of this work was the costuming design by Mara Blumenfeld. It was absolutely stupendous. Blumenfeld really captured each character’s definitive personality with the styling of their clothing. The colors clearly distinguishing, while the modern style kilts and traditional medieval gowns really played up the universalism of this work. Lady Macbeth transitions between whites and reds, while Macbeth in blacks and grey opposing Macduff in blues signifying loyalty, strength, and more affirmative adjectives. 

Selfishness and greed are things that transcend time and the work leads the audience into a time and space separate from our own, yet completely familiar. The overall costuming choices were a blend and homage to many directions and variations the play has taken over the years. Patrick Stewart’s iconic black trench coat in the 2010 BBC film of a seemingly 20th century Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin is incorporated in Blumenfeld’s design and highlighted in the same haunting “double double, toil and trouble” scene at the beginning of Act II. Wonderful! Stunning! 

Macbeth is running now through June 24, 2018 in The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare. For more information or to purchase tickets, contact Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Box Office at 312.595.5600 or visit www.chicagoshakes.com

CST strives to make its facility and performances accessible to all patrons in the Access Shakespeare programs, which lists the accessible performances for Macbeth. 

 

Mary Crylen is a photographer and writer based in Chicago. She is an alum of Southern Illinois University of Carbondale with dual degrees in English and Photography. She possesses a sincere passion for the arts and believes zeal shows through work. Follow her on Twitter!