“What things in our lives tempt us to deny the humanity in others, and by doing so, throw away part of our own? Is what remains, in a post-civilization world where so much of our humanity has been lost, even more precious? What, in such a ravaged wasteland, could lead us to abandon those last cherished scraps of humanity? And what would be the consequences?” – Director David Wilkerson in a program note for the Nashville Shakespeare Festival’s “Winter Shakespeare” production of William Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”
David Wilkerson and his Nashville Shakespeare Festival colleagues have stared into the post-apocalyptic abyss of a “Macbeth” where the title character’s “black and deep desires” play out in a ravaged wasteland brilliantly realized by set designer Jim Manning. It’s a world that intrigues, not least because it provokes the unsettling feeling this might possibly become our so-called civilization’s future.
This bleak “cockpit” (to borrow from the Bard’s “Henry V”), first replicated on the Troutt Theater stage through Sunday (Jan. 26) before proceeding to venues in Franklin, Murfreesboro, Tullahoma and Clarksville, is the space where some gifted players remind us of Shakespeare’s imaginative power. In a play like “The Tempest” that imaginative power creates Prospero’s legacy; in “Macbeth” it virtually destroys a society.
When Nashville Shakes visited this work in 2013 under the direction of former Nashvillian Matt Chiorini it was an intoxicating brew of spellbinding imagery, music (including Nine Inch Nails tunes) and movement that stimulated the senses. Those senses still get a workout watching this production, but what was other-worldly then is very, very worldly now. Each age must have its Shakespeare, and other than the obvious light his work casts on unchanging human nature, the fact that such different takes on this familiar play by the same troupe can each succeed within the mere span of seven years reminds us the Bard is basically adaptable anytime, anywhere and in any way.
The Rick Malkin pictures that accompany this review convey a scorched earth set of human “progress”: its centerpiece is a tower of mankind’s cast-off follies, including a doorway of stripped plastic and a satellite dish that long ago ceased to receive any signals. Add Jocelyn Melechinsky’s inspired costumes – most notably the head-to-toe garb and gas masks worn by the witches (Delaney Keith, Natalie Rankin and Kit Bulla) – to that desolate backdrop and the vision of this “Macbeth” is instantly one of dissipation and desolation.
At the heart of this nightmarish vision stands the title character played by Sam Ashdown. Ashdown makes Shakespeare’s verse his own language, and never forgets that audience and actor are on a journey instead of merely meeting at a destination – in his performance the whisper of Macbeth’s tragic flaws clearly and believably builds to a roar by the time he has that fateful encounter with Macduff (every inch a great warrior in the talented hands of Elyse Dawson). Macbeth’s “dagger of the mind” seems all too real when Ashdown delivers it, a suitably startling shock to the system from which he and we never totally recover; his “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow…” unfolds with such resigned despair that despite his blood-steeped sins we’re truly touched by its plaintive dispatch.
Mariah Parris is the perfect partner to Ashdown as Lady Macbeth, making her character’s arc from calculating resolve to sorrowful madness seem so palpable that we truly grieve when her husband says, “She should have died hereafter.” According to more than one scholar Lady Macbeth was based on Gruoch ingen Boite, the granddaughter of an ancient king and the mother of another, whose first husband was the King of Moray. That husband and allegedly her offspring, a King of the Scots, were murdered; in this production a scene of Lady Macbeth mourning the loss of an infant serves as a powerful preamble to her words, actions and possible motivations.
In this production’s viewpoint gender is by attributes, not physicality, so male and female actors play roles of different genders. That, as well as multiple roles assumed by several company members (for example, longtime Nashville Shakes performer Brian Russell has four roles, including the ill-fated Duncan), would be confusing without actors capable of committing to clear choices for each of their parts; the aforementioned performers along with others in the ensemble (Jordan Gleaves, Lucy Buchanan, Déyonté Jenkins, Jonathan Contreras, Joy Greenawalt-Lay, Micah Williams and Andrew Johnson) are quite good at making each role distinct. For instance, in addition to playing one of the decidedly disturbing witches, Keith offers us marvelous comic relief as the Porter; her bawdy explanation regarding three things drinking provokes is an hilarious gem.
Among the other highly professional elements in this production are the appropriately off-kilter lighting design of the wonderful Anne Willingham, the excellent fight choreography by Wilkerson and Carrie Brewer, the throbbing sounds supplied by Evan Wilkerson, the wide array of props from Amanda Creech and the expert stage management of Daniel C. Brewer assisted by Kilby Yarbrough.
Harold Bloom, the critic/scholar who died last October after decades of analyzing and writing about Shakespeare’s work, opined that given the hold imagination has over this work, “The motto of Macbeth, both play and person, could well be: ‘And nothing is, but what is not.'” Wilkerson and his NSF colleagues have created and defined a particular world for their “Macbeth,” but their skills and commitment to the text insure this production intrigues us by never ceasing to work on our imaginations.
Nashville Shakespeare Festival’s 2020 Winter Shakespeare production of “Macbeth” continues in various Middle Tennessee locations through Feb. 21. For more information on places, times and tickets please click here.