THEATER REVIEW | Public Theater of Minnesota make the mishaps of live theater work in “Macbeth”


It’s strange to say you enjoyed a production of Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth. Admired or appreciated, maybe. Bored, in unfortunate instances. But enjoyed? Strange as it seems to me, however, I have to admit I very much enjoyed The Public Theater of Minnesota’s current production of Macbeth. A great deal of that has to do with how director (and Artistic Director) Mark Hauck and his strong young ensemble of actors worked together to create a story that could not be derailed even by a series of production mishaps that sometimes happen in live theater—particularly theater outdoors in the park—and in this case not only happened but kept happening.

“The times had been that, when the brains were out, the man would die, and there an end; but now they rise again.”

Something different, again in a good way, about this production of Macbeth is that it was truly an ensemble effort. I hadn’t realized until I saw this Macbeth that many times a production of this play is out of balance. A theater will make sure they cast the very best actors in the lead roles of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. But sometimes the ensemble around them is good, sometimes the other performers outside the central couple leave you scratching your head and wondering, “Wait? Who’s that guy again? Why are we spending all this time listening to a bunch of people rattling off exposition and running around with swords and lanterns? When do we get back to Macbeth and Lady Macbeth? Or the witches, where are the witches? They’re fun.”

“Sudden, malicious, smacking of every sin that has a name.”

In the case of Public Theater’s Macbeth, the two leads—Jason Rojas as Macbeth, and Teresa Marie Doran as Lady Macbeth—are just as good as you would hope for. But the rest of the cast is equally strong, and is directed in such a way that the audience cares about the entire story, not just Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s part of it. I’ve understood the convoluted politics of Macbeth before. They’re tricky but not impossible to follow. But this Macbeth was the first time I can recall myself caring about the individual players involved and following along with interest to see how the whole thing played out, whether Macbeth or Lady Macbeth were onstage or not.

“There are liars and swearers enough to beat the honest men.”

Another plus is the way the production chooses to use those witches (Elizabeth Erb, Michael Fell, and Clare Parme) – yes, one of the witches is a guy. There’s actually some significant cross-gender casting choices here—including Shelby Richardson, great as a female Banquo, unfortunate military sidekick to Macbeth, who also plays Lady Macbeth’s doctor later in the action; and McKenna Kelly-Eiding as Lennox, one of key nobles plotting to take back the country from Macbeth.

“The sleeping and the dead are but as pictures.’Tis the eye of childhood that fears a painted devil.”

But back to the witches. The “three weird sisters” aren’t solely confined to their scenes in the forest. They also pop up on the staff at Macbeth’s palace. They are always lurking somewhere around the edges, particularly when something nasty is being plotted. They are a constant supernatural force, helping edge any number of characters toward their own destruction. They also have a sense of humor, as when they serve red wine and rare, bloody meat at a dinner after Macbeth has plotted the murder of yet another adversary. And they can’t resist their baser instincts—if a dead body is left unattended on the stage, they don’t just carry it off. Growling and cackling, they descend on it and play with the blood first—and maybe have a nibble or two. We don’t see them attack Lady Macbeth, since her demise happens offstage, but since the only thing presented to Macbeth is his wife’s bloody dress, the audience is left to ponder how much is left of the old gal after the witches got done with her corpse.

“I have almost forgot the taste of fears.”

The basic story of Macbeth remains the same. It is a time of military and political upheaval in Scotland. War heroes Macbeth and Banquo run across the witches in the forest, who tell them Macbeth is destined to be king, and Banquo the mother of kings. Macbeth is urged to speed the process along by his ambitious and loving wife Lady Macbeth. When they play host to current king Duncan (Justin Alexander) and his royal entourage, they murder the king in his sleep and blame it on his sleeping guards, whose drink they drugged to smooth the way.

“Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?”

Duncan’s sons, Malcom (Zach Keenan) and Donalbain (Brandon Osero), rightly fearing for their lives after their father is killed, escape into exile. This has the added side benefit for the Macbeths of making the sons look guilty in the murder plot against their father.

“Each new morn new widows howl, new orphans cry, new sorrows strike heaven on the face.”

Macbeth takes the throne but never gets a moment’s peace. Concerned that he will not be the father of kings but according to the witches Banquo’s children will ascend the throne, Macbeth turns on his old friend and sends assassins after Banquo and her son Fleance (Cody Bursch). Banquo puts up a great fight, allowing Fleance to escape – and showcasing some great fun with stage blood.

“Lesser than Macbeth, and greater. Not so happy, yet much happier.”

When Banquo’s ghost crashes the party at Macbeth’s castle, making him look increasingly unhinged, Macbeth confronts the witches and gets another warning, this time about super-soldier Macduff (Ryan Colbert). Macduff has gone off to help recruit Duncan’s son Malcom back into the fight against Macbeth, so Macbeth sends some more assassins out to deal with Macduff’s wife (Erb again) and children—Lillie Horton and Ben Weiman. Between the guilt eating up Macbeth and Lady Macbeth from the inside, and the warring factions ranged against them on the outside, everything is set up for the final battle and various revenges which conclude the play.

“It will have blood, they say; blood will have blood.”

Part of Public Theater’s mission is to give younger actors a shot at the classics. This can beg the question, are they ready? This ensemble (which also includes Alex Brightwell and Eric Eichenlaub, in addition to those listed above) proved they were more than ready, and proved it as much with how they dealt with things going wrong as they did performing when everything was going their way.

“Oftentimes, to win us to our harm, the instruments of darkness tell us truths.”

The actors were all outfitted with tiny microphones and at first I have to admit I thought, “seriously, they can’t project their voices?” But the microphones are a tool here in a two-front battle —one, Wolfe Park in St. Louis Park where they perform is right in the flight path of the Minneapolis airport. The mics are a necessary evil given the regular noise they’re dealing with. Two, with an audience of all ages, those on the older end of the spectrum no doubt appreciate the extra volume for their hearing issues.

“I had most need of blessing, and ‘Amen’ stuck in my throat.”

In the middle of a scene in the second act, after the sun had gone down, the power went out. No lights, no sound system. Here’s where you find out if an actor’s been trained right. Zach Keenan as Malcom was in the middle of a sentence to Ryan Colbert as Macduff. It was an intense scene just between the two of them. The power goes out. Keenan doesn’t even miss a beat. Not a pause, not a stutter, he just keeps talking. He adjusts his volume immediately because he knows he’s speaking unassisted. Colbert responds in kind. There’s enough ambient light from other areas of the park (and handy prop lanterns) that the stage isn’t pitch black. They just keep going. It took a couple of scenes for the power to come back but the rest of company followed Keenan and Colbert’s lead and kept the story moving until first the sound system and finally the lights returned.

“False face must hide what the false heart doth know.”

On the technical side of things, I’m sure stage manager Chelsie Howard, sound engineer Alex Coon, and microphone technician Jenna Mady and their technical crew were internally going nuts, but outwardly, they remained calm and just got the problem solved and got the tech end back up and running as quickly and smoothly as they could. You never hope for something to go that spectacularly wrong in a production, but that kind of experience does help bond a cast and an audience together in a way only live theater can.

“Look like the innocent flower but be the serpent under it.”

Quick shout-out to a couple of elements of the design team. Cody Bursch wasn’t just performing as Fleance, he was also composer and sound designer. For the most part, the production doesn’t overdo it on the ominous soundtrack of stringed instruments in tension. A little music goes a long way and they keep that in mind. I’m still not entirely sold on the witches’ big song and dance number in act two, although I admit it is an inventive way of attacking the old “Double, double, toil and trouble” section—and I really enjoyed the way each of the witches was channeling a different dark spirit as if possessed during this second sequence of prophecies.

“Come you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here.”

Lucas Skjaret’s costume design is also a big help in telling who’s who in the large cast of characters. For instance, royal brothers Malcom and Donalbain always had some form of matching outfits going on, and the direction kept family units in general on display in ways that made allegiances clear. Macduff and his family never have a scene with dialogue together, but because the whole family is staged together as a group in act one, visibly noticeable as a family, when the assassins come for the wife and kids in act two and Macduff later gets the bad news, the audience is able to track this sorry tale more easily. Also, when you have a cast this young, the costume designer is only doing their job if they accentuate the positives. Not only does Lady Macbeth get a number of flattering outfits, but whether it’s soldiers in battle or ladies in waiting, there’s a lot of young arms and legs on display—always tasteful, never exploitive. The audience just gets a little eye candy with their iambic pentameter.

So slap on the bug spray, grab a chair or a blanket, and head over to Wolfe Park and see the Public Theater of Minnesota’s take on Macabeth. I enjoyed myself. I think you will, too.

4-1/2 stars – Very Highly Recommended