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A CurtainUp Review
The premise: Seven girls at a private school have a "Macbeth" club. These girls meet up to do the Scottish Play in a vacant lot outside the city on an autumn afternoon. With the wild abandon of youth they toss down their scripts and on the sheer wings of their adolescent imaginations, morph into the play's dramatis personae.
Schmidt's conceit isn't original. Her artistic forerunners include Phyllida Lloyd and her all-female productions of Julius Caesar, Henry IV, and The Tempest at St. Ann's Warehouse. Then there's John Logan's 2012 film Private Romeo, a retooled Romeo and Juliet for the all-male cadets at a military school; and Joe Calarco's 1998 take on Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet called R and J, with all the roles played by four men.
What is particularly good about Schmidt's production is the way Shakespeare's language and emblematic imagery remains intact: thus Isabelle Fuhrman downstage for Macbeth's famous is-this-a-dagger-that-I-see-before-me speech has Witch 1 (standby Izabel Mar went on for AnnaSophia Robb at the preview performance I attended) spin a real dagger across the dirt to Macbeth midway through the soliloquy. Even though Fuhrman could have performed the speech as a pure hallucination within Macbeth's mind, the sudden appearance of a gleaming steel instrument in Fuhrman's hand introduces true terror. What's more, since all the props in this production are taken out of the students' book bags, Schmidt subtly raises the heavy issue of school violence.
The actors are to be commended for their energy and pluck, with many actors taking on multiple roles. There are individually striking performances by Fuhrman as Macbeth, wrestling with her conscience as she plots the royal murder, by Ismenia Mendes as Lady Macbeth who verbally lashes Macbeth to do the bloody deed, and by Ayana Workman as Banquo pre-and post-mortem, reaching her glorious stride as the guilt-invoking ghost at the banquet.
The paradox of the current production is that the students never completely disappear into their Shakespearean roles but allow their girlish fun-loving selves to break through at unexpected moments. This is most evident when the cast pauses at the play's midpoint to wildly sing and dance a coronation song to the beat of Beyonce's "Bow Down." Closer to the denouement, they temporarily halt the action again, resurrecting the Sex Pistol's melody "God Save the Queen" to coincide with Macbeth's plotting of the murder of Lady MacDuff and her children (The actual murder of Lady MacDuff and her children is jettisoned from this compact production).
This play within a play breaks quite a few dramatic rules — and purists are bound to roll their eyes at Lady Macbeth's entrance, reading Macbeth's letter as a text (or email) on her cell phone. Then there's the literally sweet moment when Banquo presents Lady Macbeth with the diamond sent from Duncan, and it's a candy ring pop. This does get a laugh from the audience, and it's not the last one.
The brevity of this Mac Beth is in line with its Jacobean source play (Macbeth is Shakespeare's shortest tragedy). Schmidt's production clocks in at 90 minutes sans intermission. And its lean and mean dramaturgy works to advantage, the play's structure serving as a mirror to the ruthless unchecked ambition of the Macbeths.
The real surprise in Mac Beth is that scene after scene something fresh will be revealed about the Scottish Play. And the spontaneity of the students and the exciting simplicity of the staging (set design by Catherine Cornell) under Schmidt weld into a rough magic.
Schmidt might not be the first artist to introduce an all-female cast for a Shakespeare play. Still, her Mac Beth arrives in New York like a breath of fresh air.
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Adapted and directed by Erica Schmidt from Shakespeare's play Macbeth
Cast: Isabelle Fuhrman (Macbeth), Ismenia Mendes (Lady Macbeth), Izabel Mar (Witch 1), Sharlene Cruz (Witch 3), Sophie Kelly-Hedrick (Witch 2), Lily Santiago (Macduff), and Ayana Workman (Banquo).
Sets: Catherine Cornell
Costumes: Jessica Pabst
Sound: Erin Bednarz
Lighting: Jeff Croiter
Movement Coordinator: Lorenzo Pisoni
Stage Manager: Jane Pole
At the Lucille Lortel Theatre, at 121 Christopher Street (between Bleecker & Hudson Streets). Tickets: from $77. Phone 212.352.3101 or online at www.redbulltheatre.com
From 5/7/19; opening 5/19/19; closing 6/2/19.
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission.
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan based on press performance of 5/15/19
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