This new season at Actors’ Shakespeare Project—the first under artistic director Christopher V. Edwards, who took over from Allyn Burrows last year—is a welcome change of pace for the troupe that has of late been presenting, well, mostly Shakespeare.
Edwards seems intent on looking forward, though, and his breath of fresh air is one of the things I’m most looking forward to this season. Opening this winter is Nathan Alan Davis’s Nat Turner in Jerusalem, and next summer ASP will present one of the most produced plays of the year, Kate Hamill’s Pride and Prejudice. Sandwiched in between them will be Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, a co-production with the Lyric Stage Company, the season’s only true Shakespeare play.
I say “true Shakespeare” because although ASP has just opened its season with Macbeth, it boasts a new modern verse translation by Migdalia Cruz. Commissioned as a part of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Play On! festival, which sought to enlist a diverse group of playwrights to adapt 39 plays attributed to Shakespeare into contemporary modern English, Macbeth will run in repertory with Bill Cain’s Equivocation, which opens Oct 11.
The language utilized by this translation is modern by Shakespearean standards but certainly not our own, and it’s still in verse, so don’t expect contemporary dialogue. It isn’t so much a reimagining of Macbeth as it is a tweaking: An estimated 80 percent of the original language remains. Thus, it never fully registers as anything truly modern or truly Shakespearean. If we are to be seeing a modern verse translation of Macbeth, why not make it truly modern? (Whether that was a parameter of the festival or of Cruz, I don’t know).
While Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s mission is noble (it has enlisted an impressive number of nonwhite, nonmale playwrights), this Macbeth feels more like an academic exercise in translation and dramaturgy than a worthwhile theatrical experiment.
The verse may be modern, and the cast is wonderfully diverse, but for all that is contemporary about the mission, this production, attractively staged but visionlessly directed by Dawn M. Simmons, doesn’t capitalize on the opportunity to make this a Macbeth for 2018.
A large pentagram made of sticks looms large over the stage (designed by Jon Savage), which is, in this instance, on and around the church sanctuary. It is three witches, after all, whose premonition helps to propel Macbeth and his ambitious wife on their bloody ascent. Although this giant symbol hangs above the action and the witches here are outfitted in what looks to be a kind of tribal pagan garb (designed by Rachel Padula-Shufelt), it never feels bound to the story in any real way, and it never quite seems like something truly evil is working behind the scenes.
The story of Macbeth is not as convoluted as most of Shakespeare’s other tragedies, but I’m sorry to say that I was regularly confused by what was happening, which can be partially attributed to the fact that it is difficult to fully grasp time and place. The lighting (by Laura Hildebrand) shifts a bit between locales and gives the production a whole lot of atmosphere (aided by Elizabeth Cahill’s sound design), but it is otherwise hard to tell exactly where we are. Adding to the confusion is that some actors play three or four roles, sometimes back to back and with little change in their performance, which is needlessly problematic.
There are good performances, courtesy of reliable Boston staples Steven Barkhimer, Ed Hoopman, and Maurice Parent, but the brutally ambitious Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, played by Nael Nacer and Paige Clark, are inadequately rendered.
Macbeth says a lot about the ways in which ambition can corrode the conscience and about the fine line between being a leader and a tyrant, two things that Americans know a little something about these days. If only this production knew was it was trying to say.
MACBETH. THROUGH 11.11 AT ACTORS’ SHAKESPEARE PROJECT AT UNITED PARISH, 210 HARVARD ST., BROOKLINE. ACTORSSHAKESPEAREPROJECT.ORG