Where: The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Navy Pier
When: through June 24
By ANNE SPISELMAN
“Macbeth” and magic go hand-in-hand, so when Chicago Shakespeare Theater tapped Aaron Posner and Teller (of Penn & Teller) to adapt and direct the Scottish Play, expectations ran high that they would wow us with wonders as they did in the 2015 Jeff Award-winning “The Tempest.”
While this “Macbeth” has a fair share of illusions, it’s a much darker play in which murder and mayhem rule, and their approach is different, though no less dramatic. Every decision Posner and Teller make is designed to illuminate and deepen Shakespeare’s text, sometimes by connecting the dots in unexpected ways.
The tweaks start with the Weird Sisters (McKinley Carter, Theo Germaine, Emily Ann Nichelson). Instead of just appearing in a couple of scenes, these witches hover over everything like controlling fates, often lurking in “Hell’s Attic” (the upper level of the set) with Hecate (Ronnie Malley), whose clanging percussion underscores the action. They occasionally make characters disappear and conjure spectral heads from their bubbling cauldron to deliver misleading prophecies.
The sisters are as attentive to Lady Macbeth (Chaon Cross) as to her husband, and Posner and Teller introduce a brand-new opening dumb show to try to explain her motivation. We see her lamenting over a tiny coffin, then cradling the dead baby to her breast, foreshadowing not only her later desire to be unsexed and a man, but also suggesting that grief causes her behavior. The childlessness of Macbeth (Ian Merrill Peakes) and his wife is thrown into sharp focus compared to Duncan (Christopher Donahue) and his sons, Banquo (Andrew White and his son Fleance (Austin Molinard), and Macduff (Timothy D. Stickney) and his family.
Macduff’s importance is beefed up from the beginning. He’s there to report Macbeth’s victory in battle to Duncan, resulting in the promotion to Thane of Cawdor. When Duncan decides to visit Macbeth at his castle, Macduff’s wife (Jennifer Latimore) and children are in the entourage. This may not make complete sense logically, but it enhances the tragedy of their murder.
The classic comic relief scene of the drunken Porter (Matthew Floyd Miller) responding to knocking at the gates gets an inspired update that makes it funnier and draws us into the play. Miller roams the audience jesting and joking with individuals in a way that made me wonder if something similar might have been done in Shakespeare’s time.
One of the themes in “Macbeth” is that nothing is exactly as it seems to the title character, and magic is used primarily to emphasize the disparity between perception and reality. When Macbeth imagines seeing a dagger as he contemplates the ghastly deed, one floats in the large mirror behind him. As the distraught Lady Macbeth despairs of ever getting the blood off her hands and rubs them against her white nightgown, blood flows from them and stains it crimson.
A couple of illusions don’t quite work, most notably the appearance of the murdered Banquo at the banquet. The way the guests cluster in front of the throne beforehand signals what’s about to happen, and I’m not sure why the banquet table has been scuttled altogether. In at least one case, there’s no magic trick where one might be expected: We only hear about Burnham wood coming to Dunsinane rather than seeing it.
The cast is outstanding, and the acting is as strong as one would expect, but the most stellar performance comes from Cross as a luminous, passionate Lady Macbeth. It’s also clear that she and Peakes’ Macbeth are on opposite trajectories, which drives them apart sexually and emotionally. She starts out fiercely determined to make him king no matter the cost and ends up driven mad by guilt and remorse, whereas he’s initially reluctant to seize an opportunity by committing murder but becomes increasingly emboldened by each killing, obsessed by fear and paranoia.
The stunning staging emphasizes the thriller aspect of the story. Daniel Conway’s brooding, multilevel scenic design features three blood-red doors, and Thom Weaver’s lighting adds an air of medieval mystery. Mara Blumenfeld’s costumes range from dark kilts for the warriors to glorious black and red gowns for Lady Macbeth, not to mention the ghostly garb (and makeup by Richard Karvie) for the witches. Credit for the scary sound design and composition goes to Andre Pluess, and Kenny Wollesen made Hecate’s “musical instruments of darkness.” Johnny Thompson designed the magic, and Matt Hawkins convincingly choreographed the fights.
This adaptation premiered at the Folger Theatre in Wshington, DC, and the Two River Theater Company in Red Bank, NJ, and while I wouldn’t dub it the definitive “Macbeth,” it’s certainly worth seeing.