“Mac Beth,” an updated version of Shakespeare’s Scottish tragedy built on seven uniform-clad high school girls playing out the roles in their free time, is full of a whole lot of sound but precious little fury — except perhaps the fury of the audience for what has been done to one of the Western world’s great dramas.
Let me start my saying that the Red Bull Theatre production, which opened Sunday at Off Broadway’s Lucille Lortel Theatre, is not completely radical. All-female productions of Shakespeare are nothing new. (In just the last decade, Phyllida Law has produced three fine versions of “Julius Caesar,” “Henry IV” and “The Tempest.”) Nor is it a novelty to build an adaptation around high schoolers discovering the Bard’s text and making it their own (see Joe Calarco’s “R & J”).
And director Erica Schmidt explores some interesting ideas in her adaptation, even drawing parallels to the Slender Man case involving teenage girls who prove susceptible to acts of extreme violence against each other. But as a director, she’s produced a loud, exasperating muddle.
I have no objections to modern takes on the classics, or having Shakespeare characters deliver messages via texts on their cellphones, toast each other with red Solo cups or have Banquo make a spliff sign with her fingers when asking, “Have we eaten on the insane root, that takes the reason prisoner?”
But the performances here are so spastic, the line delivery so rapid-fire that not only is Shakespeare’s poetry lost but also any sense that these are flesh-and-blood adolescents who have deliberately chosen to act out this ancient play in some grassy field (strikingly designed on a thrust stage by Catherine Cornell). Isabelle Fuhrman‘s Macbeth comes across as more petulant than conflicted, while Ismenia Mendes’ Lady Macbeth joins much of the cast in substituting ever-higher volume for any variation in her line reading.
Leaving aside the modern interjections (“Awkward!”), the overacting throughout is egregious — Annasophia Robb, who plays one of the witches as well as several other characters, actually delivered a much more subtle, convincing performance as a teenage Carrie Bradshaw on The CW’s “The Carrie Diaries.”
Yes, Shakespeare’s language can feel unfamiliar — but speeding through it and raising your voice doesn’t make any more sense of it, especially when Schmidt has already hacked the play down to an intermissionless 90 minutes. (Had there been an intermission, I would have been tempted to slip the cast some Ritalin.)
Schmidt has some interesting ideas about female violence, and she produces some memorable stage tableaux, particularly during the witches’ cauldron sequence played out in a mesmerizing (and of course loud) onstage rainstorm. But her direction repeatedly lets down her concept, and her cast, who don’t so much strut and fret their hour and a half upon the stage as they do stomp and flail.
As Macbeth might say, “This is a sorry sight.”