Life is but a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage — or at least it is for an actor diving into Macbeth. The ambitious tragedy is tackled anew by the Savage Players, a quaint ensemble that aims to bequeath the often dusty drama with fresh life. The production presents itself as a version that resonates with current society, and strives to bridge the gap between itself and the more traditional with familiar references. Director Alex Levy’s interpretation forages desperately to find relevance in 21st century, but the modern spin feels, at times, lost in translation. The anachronistic presentation creates an awkward tension with the audience that is never fully reconciled.
For those unfamiliar with Shakespeare’s beautiful dark twisted tragedy, the eponymous Macbeth is a war hero who schemes to murder his way to the throne after being influenced by the prophecy of three mysterious witches who forecast his reign. Rife with bloody deeds, stinging rhyming couplets and the unquenchable thirst for power, the cursed Scottish Play stands among Shakespeare’s best works.
Before the first witch cackles the play’s opening lines, a woman floats toward the center of the room as if in a trance, illuminated only by the iconic logo of her Apple laptop. The crackle of news media permeates the room, offering snippets of updates about an ongoing war. After a needlessly long briefing on a war that will end as the eponymous hero takes center stage, the woman closes the laptop and exits without a word.
The next scene abruptly transitions to the witches, who are perched upon the production’s only set piece: scaffolding. The witches mime frantic typing as the speakers blast the clunk of old-fashioned typewriter keys. As if they were journalists in a newsroom, they exchange papers and folders as they chant.
The change in style, from retro to glossy-new, disrupts the illusion of 21st-century relevancy proposed by the preceding scene. And if the witches are intended to be relics from the past intruding upon the present to meddle with the future, this purpose is not immediately clear.
Furthermore, war heroes Macbeth and Banquo ditch their Scottish armor for camouflage, combat boots and dog tags. This marries relatively well with the play’s attempt at a present-day theme, but away from the battle scene, Macbeth dons a crisp button-up while Banquo dresses in Western attire. These references too are lost, and the clashing styles tug the play’s setting in opposite directions.
It seems more often than not that references are thrown in as they make sense on a scene-to-scene basis: Lady Macbeth reads a letter from her husband on her iPhone, the play’s party scene features bass-happy music and raucous toasting and Macbeth’s hit men look like grimy ’90s New Yorkers. These attempts are few and far between, however, as the play’s bare stage often negates these additions.
The actors occupy a stage several strides long and half as many across. The set, designed in a miniature in-the-round in the theater — more accurately a studio space — has two doors at either end, several small windows on one side and a panel of shrouded mirrors on the other and with a small staircase leading to an attic. The space is supposed to kindle an intimacy and heighten intensity by removing the boundaries between audience and actor.
The actors might be physically closer, but they still feel just as far away as they would in a typical theater — unless Hecate the witch happens to makes eye contact. It’s more likely, though, that during the lapses of action, you’ll catch the gaze of a fellow audience member or watch them absentmindedly sip their wine.
The shape of the space also invites the unfortunate circumstance of staring directly into an actor’s back, calling to mind the expression, “You make a better door than a window.” Depending on which folding chair you’ve selected for the night, you might also find yourself craning your neck a little in order to catch all the action.
Still, what the production lacks in coherency and meticulousness, it makes up for in resourcefulness and heart. With few tools at its disposal, the ensemble utilizes the space’s levels and doors to make impactful entrances. In the play’s most compelling scene, Hectate summons the spirits to frighten Macbeth and a cast of dimly-lit ghouls materialize in the windows on the far wall (pick a seat facing the windows if you want to witness this).
Though some characters stumbled through Shakespeare’s poetic tongue-twisters (the infamously difficult “Horror! Horror! Horror!” line, however, was not flubbed), it was clear that the cast threw themselves into their performances.
Macbeth, played by Colin Simon, grows steadily more manic and desperate as his hair becomes more spikey and uncontrolled. He plays opposite his foil, an unflinching and cool MacDuff portrayed by Joe Tower, and a feisty but collected Lady Macbeth, played by Adrienne Hertler. The standout in the ensemble goes to the powerful, unflappable Michelle Holmes, whose ringing bravado as Hectate very nearly causes goosebumps.
Though this production of Macbeth might not serve to transform the Shakespeare-phobic, it does its job incarnating the lines from the pages and ultimately, does the Bard’s work justice.
Macbeth runs through Nov. 17, with show times Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 7 p.m. at Live Arts Los Angeles.
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