Director Terry Twyman chose Macbeth, Shakespeare's last tragedy, as his first production in what he hopes to be a series of Shakespeare plays.
For setting, Twyman opted for Sleeping Cat Studio. The atmosphere in this little black-box theater is arty and relaxed, and the smell was damp like a mortuary. But the morgue creepiness and the very dim sliver of neon light that welcomes you at the entrance only served to whet the senses for the tragedy about to take place. (As for the smell, just relax. You'll get some relief during intermission.)
Shakespeare wrote Macbeth -- about a man, who, urged by his wife and foretold by prophecy, commits regicide in order to gain power -- around 1606. And now, in 2002, what can you expect from Twyman's version?
Well, with an audience of about a dozen and a half on a recent Saturday night, seats above and beside you yawning empty, it felt a bit lonely -- like being in a dollar movie theater because you missed out on the lastest blockbuster. But as soon as the witches make their entrance, you're in the thick of the situation: For all those with longtime memories of ugly, wart-faced witches with big honkers and brooms, Twyman's witches (Grace Hensley, Twana Coleman, and Leah Roberts) are a delight. Dressed only in thongs and sheer black ponchos, their eyes covered with black masks, they dance around a "devil's pole," an ossified staff crowned by a skull and bull's horns. These are very authentic modern seducers, and Roberts, as "chief witch," displays a lot of passion, using her long red curly hair to conjure up power.
According to Twyman, all the contemporary touches in this production are to create "a more hybrid version of the play." When Duncan (Michael Mefford), king of Scotland, and his son Malcolm (Carey Vaughn) take the stage, for example, they are dressed in black suits and their faces are often motionless. The pair appear interchangeable, mere placeholders for the suits. And while it's understandable that a modern, low-budget production of Shakespeare would work with costumes as simple as possible, hearing Shakespeare while seeing Men in Black requires some adjustment on the part of the audience. But the main purpose of the costumes in this production is to make the distinction between civilians, who are dressed casually in street clothes, royalty, who are dressed in suits, and soldiers, who are dressed in camouflage.
Some of Twyman's props may cause a slight surprise as well. Swords, daggers, and guns seem to be interchangeable, and it's not uncommon for Macbeth (Michael B. Conway) and Lady Macbeth (Amy Van Doren) to use that most with-it weapon -- the phone.
But props and costumes are not everything. The stage design for Twyman's Macbeth is very low-key, almost spartan. The stage is framed by scrims, which allow for beautiful light play, and Twyman, who designed the lighting, uses them for dramatic effect. In some scenes, the stage is immersed in mellow, warm, and earthy light that doesn't draw attention away from the actors. When Macbeth sets out to kill yet another vassal, the light is more dramatic, dark, and threatening.
As for the acting, we can use what Twyman described as his acid test: "People walk in here, pay 10 bucks for Shakespeare, and, by golly, they will get 10 bucks' worth of Shakespeare." Make that 10 bucks' worth of Conway. Conway lives Macbeth's transformations, his despair. ("I would never turn down a chance to play Macbeth anywhere, and I'd rather do Shakespeare than anything else," said Conway. "It's actually the only thing I do for free.") You can see why and feel it when Conway is onstage, and when you walk out of Sleeping Cat, you have a sense that you've seen him -- the true Macbeth in the flesh.
Macbeth at Sleeping Cat Studio (655 Marshall) May 31st and June 1st at 8 p.m. and June 2nd at 2 p.m.