Folger Production Gives Macbeth a Bold Makeover

Posted March 14, 2008 at 5:47pm

Two things become clear just moments into “Macbeth” at the Folger Theatre: This is not ordinary Shakespeare, and there will be blood.

The body count starts early in this lively interpretation of Shakespeare’s classic tale of ambition gone awry, reflecting the mindset of the creative team behind the production: Teller, the smaller, silent half of the magician duo Penn & Teller; and acclaimed director and playwright Aaron Posner.

Teller — who goes by one name — acknowledges the pair set out to push the envelope.

“I saw every version of ‘Macbeth’ on film and most of them were awful, glum, and humorless,” Teller wrote in an e-mail.

Teller said he has been itching to take on Macbeth for more than 40 years, inspired by his grandfather’s gift of a 15-volume Shakespeare set: “Blood, murder [and] demons from hell coupled with poetry that sends shivers up your spine. What’s not to like?”

To distinguish the Folger production, which runs every Tuesday through Sunday until April 13, the duo started from the premise that Macbeth is, in Teller’s words, “Shakespeare’s supernatural horror story, and should be done as violently and amazingly as a modern supernatural horror movie.” The co-directors looked to classic horror films such as “Psycho,” “Dawn of the Dead” and “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” as well as Shakespeare’s own words.

The result is two spellbinding hours of high drama and sensory overload, all of which unfolds within the intimate confines of the Folger. The show is completely sold out, but approximately 12-16 standing-room-only tickets go on sale for $15 one hour before each performance.

Ian Merrill Peakes leads an outstanding cast as Macbeth, the general whose overly ambitious wife, Lady Macbeth (Kate Eastwood Norris), goads him into killing the good King Duncan (Dan Olmstead). Noteworthy are Paul Morella’s haunting performance as the betrayed Banquo, and Cody Nickell, who exudes vengeance as Macduff. And the performances and costumes of Eric Hissom, Andrew Zox and Cleo House Jr. as the Weird Sisters won’t soon be forgotten.

Coupled with visual trickery by a master magician, the show combines the best elements of theater with effects seemingly lifted from a movie set. The tightly choreographed sword fights leave the audience wondering if paramedics are waiting offstage, and the ability of the murdered Banquo’s ghost to appear and vanish seemingly at will is mesmerizing.

Topping things off is Teller’s magical handiwork sprinkled throughout the performance. Of particular note is Macbeth’s famous “Is this a dagger which I see before me” soliloquy, as well as Lady Macbeth’s guilt-wracked, blood-stained hallucinations, which culminate in the show’s most shocking visual image. You’ll know it when you see it.

For Teller, the blood and guts is all good fun. “One of our meta-themes is that violence on a stage is a blast because you know it’s not real,” he said. “It’s like the scary drop on a roller coaster — all the thrill, none of the hurt.”

He credits the show’s cast for seeing his lifelong dream to fruition. “I had an inkling that the effects would be good, but ended up blown away by the actors,” he said. “This play contains the finest, deepest, smartest, funniest and most moving acting I’ve ever seen in a live theater. And I’ve seen some damn good shows in my day.”

The project has been such a blast that he and Posner are considering what to tackle next. “Midsummer? Tempest? Or maybe something wackier?” he suggested.

Meanwhile, the team is hoping to see the production tour the United States and the United Kingdom when it wraps up at the Folger next month.

For the Hill denizens who have a chance to see the play first, the libertarian-leaning Teller notes a cautionary lesson in Macbeth’s underlying theme of excessive ambition.

“As Macbeth puts it: ‘This even-handed Justice/Commends the ingredients of our poisoned chalice/To our own lips,’” Teller said. “In other words, what goes around, comes around. Keep that in mind, kids.”