Darkness Ascending – Macbeth at Chicago Shakespeare

Teller and Posner, coming off their successful comedy The Tempest a few years ago, have returned to Navy Pier for their second Chicago Shakespeare Theatre collaboration, a tensely wicked and at times oddly humorous adaptation of Macbeth, running through June 24.  The play is staged at the newest addition to Chicago Shakespeare’s now three-stage campus, The Yard, a flexible and large venue that sacrifices some of the intimacy and warmth of the other mainstage Courtyard Theatre for size and sheer theatrical prowess.

The venue is dark, a trait it shares with Shakespeare’s tragic story of naked ambition and untimely death.  Posner and Teller don’t mind – even in their comic Tempest, it was clear that the duo’s own aesthetic of Elizabethan drama is not governed by the popular conception of Hollywood technicolor.  For Macbeth, appropriately, they go darker still.  A gothic aesthetic permeates this production, from the prescient blood-red doors and stained wood floors of what Posner refers to in the program notes as Macbeth’s “gothic castle in the woods,” to the costuming of the Witches and even to the leather vestments of the Scottish soldiers and nobles.

The darkness is further enshrined in the sound design of this production.  The only melodies present are eerie, lyric-less vocalizations emanating from the witches; their incantations range from dissonant to, rarely, beautifully harmonious.  The rest of the music in the play, while minimal, reads as fully integrated into the production since the musician, percussionist Ronnie Malley, is also cast as the Goddess Hecate, lord of the iconic witches.   The bells and drums that he intones from the seat of the underworld, ironically staged in this soaring venue from a “Hell Above,” play a strong role in guiding the psyches of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth – every bit as much of a role as the witches’ supernatural prophesies and nature’s own human folly.

Comedy doesn’t dominate discussions of Macbeth; perhaps that’s why these directors gave their adaptation an injection of mirth.  Teller sets this unexpected tone from the beginning, with his wry recorded message to silence electronic devices.  His inspiration is more satiric Rocky Horror than staid Shakespeare.  In my view, the comedic turns are mostly welcome, with one exception.  In the climactic scene when Macbeth realizes his fate, as the prophesy of the witches that the short-lived king will meet his match is fulfilled, Macbeth lets the steam out of the moment with a comic release.  The moment flashes a light in the darkness, brightening it enough to dim the overwhelming tragedy that Shakespeare writes so well.

The stage magic, lighting effects, and acting throughout this play are impeccable.  Ian Merrill Peakes and Chaon Cross, as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, completely fill up their roles.  Last night’s production featured understudy Sam Pearson as Macduff, who stepped in well to the demanding and pivotal role.  And the younger actors on the stage all manage to carry their own against the rest of the seasoned cast.

As always with the best of Shakespearean theatre, the production leaves viewers wrestling with human nature.  Our universe is not black and white; we live in a world where hell can come from above and the wheel of fortune can turn on a witch’s “double, double toil and trouble” whim.  The systems that govern our lives are, quite often, entirely out of our hands.

Thanks for reading.


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