For all our appreciation of Shakespeare for penning vivid characters, that was really a subordinate skill of the Bard. In his people — from the scantly prompted, daughter-damning King Lear to Iago with his “motiveless malignancy” — we are not so much seeing individuals as recognizing human frailties. How else to account for the occasional college production that moves us, despite the unseasoned actors?
POWER POLITICS: Roy as Macbeth.
The production of Macbeth by Brown/Trinity Rep Consortium students at the Pell Chafee Performance Center (through December 17) underscores the point that graybeards are not necessary for Shakespeare productions. The fact that middle-aged or even elderly feuding royals are being played by actors in their early 20s becomes just another stage convention easily accepted, like our looking through the fourth wall or our ability to eavesdrop at all.
If you didn’t know whose play you were sitting down to when you first encounter Tristan Jeffers’s gritty set, you certainly wouldn’t guess Shakespeare. Sam Shepard, more like it: shattered plaster, particle board floor, slum chic. This is the Scottish play as a kitchen sink drama overlooking Needle Park. Both the soon-slaughtered King Duncan (Tom Schwans) and Macbeth (Jacques Roy) are drug kingpins, modernizing the realm though the greed and lethal power politics have hardly evolved.
As befits such an urban setting, director Geordie Broadwater keeps things flowing fast and furiously, compressing the usual three-hour length to a snappy 1-3/4 hours, performed without intermission. Some scenes are eliminated, most notably the witches on the hearth and their “double, double, toile and trouble” cackling over a cauldron, which has been reduced to a flashing glimpse as Alison Cherry’s lighting design has a living room hallucination of them momentarily flicker as though under lightning.
The play has been transferred rather than shoehorned into the Macbeths’ apartment, even though Shakespeare had a closing scene overlooking a battleground, when the camouflage branches of Birnam wood came to Dunsinane hill, as prophesized for Macbeth to meet his downfall. Other scenes had to shift location, such as when the murder of Lady Macduff (Crystal Finn) and her son takes place not in her castle but when she is seeking protection from Macbeth — and is promptly killed by him, foregoing her moving farewell speech, instead of dispatched, as written, by his minions.
There are nevertheless plenty of appropriate slow-paced scenes, some quite leisurely, leavening the fast-paced ones. There is even enough time to replay the scene of Macbeth frightening his banquet guests when he sees the ghost of his erstwhile friend Banquo (Jordan Reeves), whom he’d ordered killed. The first time he is assaulting empty air, as the guests witness the incident, and the second time we see Banquo, as the king does. The repetition may better serve theoretical purposes than enhance the viewing, but that’s what daring experimentation is all about — to dare to try something that doesn’t quite work.
But far more typical are moments and scenes that work marvelously. As Lady Macbeth, Emily Young’s “out, damn spot!” scene is a tour de force, starting with her rubbing imaginary blood spots off of furniture and the floor, ending with her drenched, soaked with water rather than gore but nevertheless looking as bereft as Carrie at the prom. A gentler such powerful moment is Roy’s take on the “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow . . .” soliloquy, as he meticulously wrings every drop of matter-of-fact anguish from the grief-stricken Macbeth.