If you discount Titus Andronicus as an aberration unworthy of the quill of the mature Shakespeare, the grimmest of his plays by far must be Macbeth; every viewing or rereading brings that message home again most powerfully. Yes, the unscrupulous couple whose greed and ambition lead them inexorably down a path of escalating murder and betrayal do eventually get their comeuppance. But it’s not the sort of vengeance that supplies a feeling of satisfaction and closure to the audience. One comes away, rather, with the sense that the world of humans is a dark, perhaps irredeemable place, with or without interference from occult entities.
Nevertheless, it’s a work of undeniable dramatic force, with many passages of absolutely splendid language. So theatrical companies continue to defy all the dire superstitions associated with “the Scottish play” and mount new productions every year, and audiences unafraid of being bummed out flock to see them. So many are the Macbeths that it takes a fair bit of ingenuity to come up with an approach to distinguish your production from all the others.
The Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival (HVSF) has gone for the gimmick this season: a risky business, but one that pays off in spades by showing us this very familiar material from a fresh point of view. Specifically, it renders the violent world of Macbeth and grasping mankind in the voices of women exclusively. The three witches who were originally the drama’s incidental catalytic force expand to encompass the entire cast of characters. Three splendid actresses – Nance Williamson, Maria-Christina Oliveras and Stacey Yen – do amazing work bringing a somewhat trimmed-down version of the tragedy to life, swapping roles in a heartbeat but managing to carry the audience along with them for the scary, bumpy ride.
But this Macbeth, directed by Lee Sunday Evans, is no feminist/revisionist screed. On the contrary, gender becomes almost irrelevant in this lean presentation of the tale, as the conflict is boiled down to its bare bones of pure emotion. All three actresses skillfully employ movement, often dancelike, and their vocal instruments, often chorusing in harmony or discord as need arises, to convey layers of meaning that the Bard’s words do not. An unusually grounded and physical Macbeth, Oliveras nimbly surfs the peaks of the thane’s sense of destiny and the valleys of his self-doubt. Yen is a fierce-yet-birdlike Lady Macbeth, speaking with her fingers in ways that evoke the meaning-laden gestures of Balinese dance. Evoking one character after another after another, the versatile and supremely expressive Williamson proves once again why she is a HVSF mainstay, and probably will remain so as long as she can stand upright and utter two words in succession.
Costumes, props and sets in this production are minimalist, a movable bank of lights supplying the audience’s collective imagination with most of the staging. Mortal battles consist of two people running at each other, suddenly coming up short, looking upward at the ceiling of the Boscobel tent and wailing out a melodic “Aaaaaaa.” The “dagger which I see before me” is as much an invisible trick of Macbeth’s fevered mind as is the unwashable blood spot on the sleepwalking Lady Macbeth’s hand. They’re negotiating their tightrope without a net, these three, and manage to pull it off through sheer brilliance of acting and tightly coordinated timing.
Some Shakespeare productions are all about the gorgeous language. This one is more about the bursting inner landscapes of the characters that language embodies. It’s odd, it’s fluky and it works. You have only a few more chances to see and hear it, with HVSF’s summer season winding down: August 20, 22 and 26, all starting at 7:30 p.m. Ticket prices vary. Boscobel House and Gardens are located at 1601 Route 9D in Garrison. To order or for more information, visit https://hvshakespeare.org.