APT's "Macbeth" Illustrates the Price of Betrayal
The opening scene of Shakespeare’s Macbeth will, quite simply, take your breath away.
Onstage at American Players Theatre through Oct. 4, the play begins with a rugged and fierce, but primitive band of soldiers emerging from the woods behind the outdoor stage. They briefly pause to discuss their battle plan, then run at top speed toward the audience and up the aisles, weapons drawn and battle cries filling the air.
The tribe of Scottish warriors — led equally by men and women — seem to have sprung directly from the woods. They are clothed in layers of patched fabric tunics and leggings, with leather belts in colors of the forest, from slate and moss to dark garnet and clay. (Exceptional costume design by Daniel Tyler Mathews.) With their faces painted for battle with blue and red stripes and their hair braided wildly, these soldiers are the army of King Duncan (a strong Triney Sandoval), which has just put down a rebellion, led by a nobleman from their own inner circle.
Despite this irrefutably dramatic opening, this is not the Braveheart action movie version of Macbeth, filled with huge battles, supernatural forces and superhuman feats. It is a smaller, perhaps more universal story of one member of a community betraying the others. The ensuing play illustrates the chain reaction that follows Macbeth’s horrific act of treachery — and the resulting shame and misery that destroy him completely.
APT Core Company Member Marcus Truschinski is a human-sized Macbeth. Striding across the stage in layers of leather armor, he begins the play powerful and triumphant in battle. In quick succession he is rewarded by his king, lauded by his fellow soldiers and welcomed home with passionate embraces by his wife. But the witches’ prophecy has illuminated a selfish, irrational ambition that grows alongside indecision. Though a soldier, he is not a natural murderer. This dissonance will continue to haunt him instead of literal ghosts.
The trio of witches (Tracy Michelle Arnold, Carolyn Ann Hoerdemann and Samantha Newcomb), clad in robes the color of a misty morning, aren’t the plotting, scheming hags you may have seen before. In fact, as director James DeVita writes in his program notes, they wield “no actual power over Macbeth” in this production. These weird sisters aren’t casting spells, so much as they can see the future — scratching sacred stones and falling into zombie-like trances at the sound of a high-pitched siren. (Otherworldly choreography by Jessica Bess Lanius.)
But in this ancient time of superstition, they aren’t the only characters to tap into ritual and magic in this version of the play. Before abandoning Macbeth and retreating to England, a group of thanes (feudal lords) places their individual talismans on the ground and pours special sand over them to bind the soldiers to their mission and invoke good fortune. And Macduff (a stunning Gavin Lawrence) grasps at a crystal hanging around his neck when he needs strength.
Of course, behind Macbeth is the legendary Lady Macbeth (the alternately hard-as-flint and withering Melisa Pereyra), a woman of strong desires. As she reads her husband’s letter from the battlefield, describing the witches’ prediction that Macbeth will take the throne, her own ambitions overcome her. Ignoring the blood stains on the letter, she believes that murdering King Duncan is a necessary means to a glorious end. Bolstering her hesitating husband with the same logic, she makes a case not just for their own future, but for that of their child — in a bold production choice, this Lady M is visibly pregnant, which makes her character more complex and raises the stakes.
What’s notable about this Macbeth is how quickly he collapses under the weight of his misdeed. When the couple stands center stage, dripping in blood up to their elbows from their murdered king, regret, shame and paranoia descend on the Macbeths instantly. A few scenes later this warrior is on the floor in the fetal position, haunted by his irrevocable acts. He repeats “what’s done is done,” and wishes in vain for a restful sleep, undisturbed by a guilty conscience. But “blood begets blood,” and of course more murders are in store.
Lady Macbeth, who was so quick to spur her husband to action, is likewise undone by her actions. The queen’s “mad scene” normally presents her as crazed with grief and remorse, but in this version, she is utterly destroyed. In a sober reinvention of the scene, Pereyra enters dressed in unraveling white rags that mirror her mental state, crawling across the floor and moaning as if she were birthing a stillborn child.
Macduff and his whole family — Lady Macduff (a fierce Alys Dickerson) and his daughter (Laëtitia Hollard) give similarly heart-wrenching performances. When the news reaches Macduff that his family has been attacked, Lawrence’s reaction is staggering.
In another interesting choice, instead of ending the play with a huge conflict between armies, DeVita returns to his theme of one member of the community betraying the others. The one on one combat that ensues between a crazed Macbeth and the enraged Macduff is solemnly observed by the circle of soldiers Macbeth had once allied himself to, and because he has wronged the tribe, his downfall feels inevitable.
(Note: The stage combat at APT is universally impressive, but especially so in this final battle. Fight director Brian Byrnes designs a remarkable and creative final showdown that is so much more nuanced and visceral after the soldiers throw their weapons away.)
In the end, this Macbeth is less about the folly of kings than it is about each person’s accountability to others in a society. A parable that repeats itself, it is thankfully one where deceit and treachery are always punished. In an era where the lawlessness of those in power seems to go unchecked, it is a comforting thought that the power hungry and murderous among us will eventually face a reckoning.