Serenbe Playhouse is presenting Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” directed by Amy Boyce Holtcamp, running through July 16, outdoors in the middle of the woods, down a hill, at a waterfall. Serenbe has become famous for their “site specific” productions, and with this locale and its spooky atmosphere, they have outdone themselves.
I must first mention that you make a 7-10 minute hike to get to the playing area, and if you are handicapped, the use of golf carts, which are provided, are an absolute necessity. If you need assistance, be sure to ask. I got a ride down (I’m not a spring chicken), but I walked up (and up) when the play was over, and felt I deserved a medal.
But the play’s the thing: “Macbeth” is one of Shakespeare’s four great tragedies, along with “Hamlet,” “King Lear,” and “Othello.” You probably read it in high school. But Shakespeare wrote his works to be performed, and I think even he would be pleased with the atmosphere Serenbe has created. “Macbeth” is probably the darkest of his plays; in fact, darkness, blood, and water are all important symbols, and they are very visibly present here.
Moreover, if you’d like a definition of “existentialism,” this entire work demonstrates it. “Life’s but a walking shadow…a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” This is spoken by the title character when his dastardly deeds have come home to roost.
Any play that starts with thunder and lightning and witches chanting is probably not going to be a sunny walk in the park. But its fascination with evil, the universal theme of appearance versus reality, and the terrifying consequences of a proleptic imagination (Macbeth: “No boasting like a fool! This deed I’ll do before this purpose cool”) are hypnotic. This play plunges us into a phantasmagoria unlike any in Shakespeare’s canon.
And yet—the two main characters, Macbeth (Justin Deeley) and Lady Macbeth (Maythinee Washington) are undoubtedly the sexiest married couple in all the Bard’s works. I think this is his little joke on us. These two are crazy in love with each other; and before the murderous stuff starts, you’d probably get a kick with these two as next door neighbors.
But Shakespeare is also telling us that anybody is capable of anything; this may be the scariest, and most depressing, aspect of “Macbeth.” Serenbe hired Mr. Deeley because he’s a good-looking TV and film actor; Ms. Washington effortlessly exudes a powerful sensuality (she’s also a fine actor with solid credentials). However, it is Lady Macbeth who seems utterly ruthless when presented with a chance for power; whereas her husband is hesitant. Gradually their states of consciousness are reversed.
There will be no plot synopsis here; it’s quite well known, and Google is close at hand, if needed. We know the play starts with witches (played by Jessica De Maria, Skyler Passmore, and Jasmine Thomas) saying, “Fair is foul, and foul is fair, hover through the fog and filthy air.” These witches are seductive, sensuous, and deliciously wicked. Several actors play two or more roles, incidentally, a fact that does not thrill me; but to their credit, they pull it off.
Duncan, king of Scotland (Lee Osorio, who also plays Macduff), along with his sons Malcolm (Justin Walker) and Donalbain (Hayley Platt) are invited to dine and spend the night with the Macbeths. As you may know, Duncan does not survive the night. The sons wisely skedaddle (“Where we are, there’s daggers in men’s smiles.”)
By the way, the garb is sort of modern military. There are often guns instead of knives. This modernizing of Shakespeare used to bother me, but it no longer does, if done thoughtfully. And the lines are often so relevant to the present: When you hear Macduff say, “Bleed, bleed, poor country,” or Malcolm say, “I think our country sinks beneath the yoke; it weeps, it bleeds, and each new day a gash is added to her wounds.” I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.
Naturally, Shakespeare’s words are often incomparable and timeless. There’s a reason why he’s still a hot ticket after 400 years.
Speaking of language, which is all important, I must mention that at Serenbe’s visually stunning location, we lose some of the words. The actors are miked, but the waterfall, which I understand has toned down after last week’s rains, can still be a problem. I think the mikes could be turned up a bit. I happen to know the play very well, but if you don’t know most of the lines already, it’s a problematic situation.
Sound designer Adam Howarth, a Suzi Bass Award winner for best musical sound design for last year’s “Miss Saigon,” can probably make some adjustments. If he can overcome a helicopter, a waterfall should be small potatoes.
The acting can be quite fine, but it is uneven. Star Justin Deeley has done much TV and studied Shakespeare a bit, but the program gives no indication that he’s had any experience performing it. If so, it seems unfair to ask him to play a big, legendary role like this. You don’t ask a novice swimmer to compete with Michael Phelps. Many of his line readings seem odd or in a sort of Western movie accent. He’s attractive, he has talent, but playing Macbeth is too much too soon.
I notice that Justin Walker, who plays an excellent Malcolm, understudies Macbeth. His big Act 4 scene with Lee Osario’s Macduff may be my favorite of the evening. I think Mr. Walker is a logical choice for the title role.
Other very nice performancs are Erik Poger Abrahamsen’s Ross; Jessica De Maria’s (a stage animal) provocative witch and also the Porter, who has the most famous comic relief scene in history; Skyler Passmore, who is fascinatingly fluid as Lady Macduff’s little son, and also plays two other parts); Hayley Flatt as Fleance/Donalbain; and Kelly Criss (better as the doomed Lady Macduff than as Banquo).
John Burke’s music is superb; a truly lovely contribution.
The play runs about two and a half hours. For some reason I think of Ms. Washington’s Lady Macbeth in Act 5, pathetically washing her hands in the pond: “All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.”
Wear your walking shoes and see a visually arresting “Macbeth.”
For more information, visit serenbeplayhouse.com.