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The Great Seduction
by Vladimir Zelevinsky
Directed by Steve Callahan
West End Players Guild
November 10, 2018

Alex Fyles, Heather Sartin, Gracie Sartin, Jason Meyers
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

West End Players Guild’s latest production, The Great Seduction, is at once straightforward and surprising. Featuring a well-realized 18th Century setting and an excellent cast, it’s a show where the audience expects to laugh, and does. Still, there are also some surprising elements that elevate this beyond the expected.

According to the program, this play is “increasingly freely adapted from” Alexandre Dumas’s play Mademoiselle de Bell-Isle. For the most part, this is a fairly straightforward period comedy of manners and romantic and sexual scheming set in 18th Century France. The Countess de Bourbon (Heather Sartin) and her friend and sometime lover the Duke of Richelieu (Jason Meyers) both have set their sights on new prospective conquests. The Countess has designs on the earnest young chevalier Raoul d’Aubigny, while the Duke is yearning for Gabrielle de Belle-Isle (Gracie Sartin), who hails from the country but is eager to help her father, who has been imprisoned in the Bastille. What the Countess and the Duke don’t seem to know, though, is that Raoul and Gabrielle are previously acquainted, which adds some complications to their schemes, as does a bet that the Duke makes with Raoul. That’s about all I can say about the plot without spoiling, but I will say that the script is witty and clever, and with well-defined characters and an air of mystery and intrigue that increases as the show continues. There are definitely some surprises along the way, as well, although I’m not entirely sure how well set up they are, especially the ending.

The production has assembled an excellent cast, all playing their roles with energy and excellent timing and presence. Heather Sartin as the countess is expert in her vivacious, worldly portrayal, enjoying a flirtatious chemistry with Meyers’s equally scheming, sometimes overconfident Duke. There are also strong performances by Fyles as the earnest, somewhat naive Raoul and especially Gracie Sartin as the deceptively innocent Isabelle, whose sense of determination is strong. There’s also a strong comic performance from Rachel Bailey as the Countess’s adventurous housemaid Mariette. The personal interactions in this play are crucial, and the chemistry among the ensemble is especially important, along with wit and comic timing. Fortunately, all of these qualities are on clear display in this thoroughly entertaining, but also immensely thought-provoking production.

There’s also a strong sense of time and place presented through the technical aspects of this production. Ken Clark’s well-appointed set maintains the atmosphere of an aristocratic French country estate well. There are also sumptuous costumes by Tracey Newcomb that suit the characters well. There’s also excellent work from lighting designer Nathan Schroeder, sound designer Michael Perkins, and props designer Dani Mann. The production does an excellent job of taking the audience back to this specific time and place in history.

The Great Seduction is an intriguing title, especially after having seen the play. After a while it does seem to turn into a game of “who’s seducing who?” That’s to this play’s credit, as well. It’s certainly going to provoke a lot of thought, and maybe even some historical research. It’s an impressive theatrical feat from playwright Vladimir Zelevinsky and West End Players Guild.

Rachel Bailey, Heather Sartin
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

West End Players Guild is presenting The Great Seduction at Union Avenue Christian Church until November 18, 2018.

 

Aladdin
Music by Alan Menken, Lyrics by Howard Ashman, Tim Rice and Chad Beguelin
Book by Chad Beguelin
Directed and Choreographed by Casey Nicholaw
The Fox Theatre
November 9, 2018

Cast of Aladdin
Photo by Deen van Meer
Aladdin North American Tour

Aladdin is a crowd-pleaser. There’s no question about that when you attend the touring production at the Fox and hear the enthusiastic audience reactions to this adaptation of the popular Disney animated movie. It’s got a memorable score and some classic songs, as well as big, bright, flashy production values and an excellent cast. There’s a lot to enjoy about this production, although there are also some problems.

The show, as presented at the Fox and based on the Broadway production, is essentially like a Disney theme park attraction on stage. It’s not particularly authentic to the Middle Eastern setting–in fact, the Genie (Michael James Scott) makes a point in his introduction of telling the audience that this is a fictional location, and especially stressing the word “fictional”. The cast is very diverse, but the show is definitely not going for accuracy in terms of setting and tone, either. It’s all extremely stylized and played up for humor. The film was also highly stylized, so this is just following that precedent, although this stage version is even more so, somewhat in the vein of a 1950s-style sketch comedy show. The hit songs from the film are all here, from “Friend Like Me” to “A Whole New World” and more. The story is essentially the same as the film, but with some changes—Aladdin (Clinton Greenspan) now has three sidekick-friends–Babkak (Zach Bencal), Omar (Phillippe Arroyo), and Kassim (Jed Feder) who show up from time to time, and villain Jafar (Jonathan Weir) still has his henchman Iago (Jay Paranada), but Iago is not a parrot and the other animal characters from the film have been written out. Princess Jasmine (Lissa deGuzman) is given a little bit more to do and sing. Also, Aladdin is given a little more backstory and some plot points have been changed and rearranged, and the ending seems somewhat abrupt.

I first saw the stage adaptation of this show a few years ago when the Muny presented it, prior to its Broadway run. It was still in the development stages. Seeing it again at the Fox, I’ve noticed a lot of changes made to the script in the meantime, some of which are improvements and others that are more questionable. For instance, Aladdin’s three friends were the narrators in the Muny version, and seemed more of a presence in the story. Here, the narrator role has been given to the Genie, which seems appropriate in one sense since the Genie is such a memorable character. Still, the three friends now seem more like thrown-in characters and don’t seem to have a lot of purpose in the story. Still, this isn’t trying to be deep or challenging. It’s trying to be a big Disney spectacle, and it succeeds at that, for the most part.  It’s big, it’s flashy, there’s an impressive, ornate, versatile set by Bob Crowley, whimsically stylish costumes by Gregg Barnes, and atmospheric lighting by Natasha Katz. It almost looks like an animated film come to life, and director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw’s choreography is energetic and well-performed.

It’s the performances, in fact, that are the real highlight of this production, led by Scott in a funny, high-energy, charismatic turn as the Genie. Actually, with this show it’s worth wondering why they don’t just retitle it Aladdin and the Genie or even the other way around because even though Aladdin has the most stage time, the Genie is really the star. Greenspan is an amiable Aladdin as well, with a strong voice and excellent chemistry with the equally strong deGuzman as Jasmine. Their duet on “A Whole New World” is a highlight, as is the staging of that song, which is a major improvement on the version I saw at the Muny. Weir and Paranada are also excellent, hamming it up with enthusiasm as a pair of over-the-top cartoon villains. Bencal, Arroyo, and Feder do well with their underwritten roles, as does Jerald Vincent as the Sultan. The leads are supported by a strong ensemble that does well with the high-energy dancing and production numbers, as well.

There’s more than a little bit of the commercial about this Aladdin, but that’s not a surprise, really.It has a great cast and memorable songs. It’s a bright, tuneful, energetic show that’s sure to attract a large family audience, and if that’s what you are looking for, you should enjoy it.

Michael James Scott
Photo by Deen van Meer
Aladdin North American Tour

The North American tour of Aladdin is being presented at the Fox Theatre until November 25, 2018

 

 

 

 

Doctor Faustus, or The Modern Prometheus
by John Wolbers… and Kit Marlowe
Directed by Ellie Schwetye
SATE Ensemble Theatre
November 8, 2018

Joe Hanrahan, Ashley Bauman, Talessha Caturah, Nicole Angeli
Photo by Joey Rumpell
SATE Ensemble Theatre

There’s a whole lot of “Faust” happening in St. Louis this year. The collaborative FAUSTival is continuing this month, and now it’s SATE’s turn to offer their own approach to this legendary tale. This is the fourth entry in the series, and if you thought you might start feeling a little bit of “Faust” fatigue by this point, there’s no need to worry, as SATE’s take on the oft-told tale is bold, fresh, challenging, and thoroughly compelling.

With this production, playwright John Wolbers takes Christopher (Kit) Marlowe’s version of the story and significantly tweaks it to give it a modern spin. The title character is now a woman (Ashley Baumann), and although the play is still in verse and uses Early Modern English and Elizabethan-inspired costumes for the most part, the setting is modern, with present-day cultural references included, and modern issues–or actually, age-old issues in the context of how they have manifested in modern times. The story emphasizes the temptation of Faustus and her relationships with those close to her, especially her college boyfriend Wagner (Michael Pierce) and roommate Val (Lex Ronan), as well as her business role model and mentor Carol Hapsburg (Taleesha Caturah). There’s also the various incarnations of Mephistophilis, the demon who is supposed to serve her after she makes a pact with the devil. Mephistophilis is played in turn by almost all of the remaining cast members in the show, with the exception of Nicole Angeli, who plays “The Seven”, a personification of the Seven Deadly Sins, which play a major role in Faustus’s journey of temptation and ascent to power. The play incisively deals with important issues such as the struggles for equality of women in academia and business, as well as sexual harassment, the corruption of power, and more.

Although it takes a few minutes to really get going, it soon becomes a riveting drama, with impressive performances all around. Bauman’s Faustus goes on a credible emotional journey, and her initial idealism and growing sense of ambition are well portrayed. There’s strong chemistry between her and Pierce as the devoted but eventually disillusioned Wagner and also with Ronan as her close friend, the also idealistic and magically curious Val. Ronan is also strong in her role as legendary mythological Helen of Troy and one of the incarnations of Mephistophilis. There’s also a strong performances from Caturah in three roles, including the original version of the crafty Mephistophilis, as well as the authoritavie Hapsburg and, in a memorable scene, as an elderly lady who makes an impression on Faustus. Joe Hanrahan, as a smarmy college professor and the second Mephistophilus, and Erik Kuhn and Kareem Deanes in multiple roles are also excellent. Special mention needs to go to Angeli, who deftly shifts back and forth between seven distinct personalities as The Seven. It’s a dynamic, impressive, chilling, and thoroughly memorable performance that stands out in an already excellent ensemble.

The technical aspects of this show don’t fail to impress, either. Bess Moynihan’s set is distinctive, as a series of seven columns–decorated to represent the Deadly Sins–serve as an effective backdrop for the action. The lighting design by Dominick Ehling coordinates well with the set and with the acting in a clever way that I won’t spoil here, but will make itself apparent as the story plays out. There’s also excellent use of sound, designed by Kareem Deanes, and vividly realized modern-Elizabethan fusion-style costumes by Liz Henning.

This is a Doctor Faustus for the ages, both ancient and modern, employing some modern sensibilities to communicate timeless truths about the human condition, ambition, and temptation as well as the importance of empathy and compassion. It’s another excellent FAUSTival presentation, serving also in various ways to point out the common themes the various productions have had, beyond the fact that they’re all about Faust in their own unique ways. In this production, SATE continues to challenge, impress, and provoke much thought. It’s another strong production from this excellent company.

Cast of Doctor Faustus
Photo by Anne Genovese
SATE Ensemble Theatre

SATE Ensemble Theatre is presenting Doctor Faustus, or The Modern Prometheus at The Chapel until November 17, 2018

 

Into the Breeches!
by George Brant
Directed by Nancy Bell
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis
November 1, 2018

Kari Ely, Katy Keating, Jacqueline Thompson, Mary McNulty, Michelle Hand
Photo by Phillip Hamer Photography
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Shakespeare Festival St. Louis is branching out. Known for years for its free mainstage productions in Forest Park as well as a few other projects like Shake 38 and Shakespeare in the Streets, the Festival is now adding another program to their schedule. The “In the Works” festival highlights more modern works based on Shakespeare by contemporary playwrights, including a headline show at the Grandel Theatre. This year’s headliner is called Into the Breeches! and it’s delightful. Featuring a first-rate cast of mostly local St. Louis performers, the show looks back at a pivotal time in American history, as well as celebrating Shakespeare, women in the arts, inclusion, and most of all, a real sense of love for the theatre.

The story takes place in 1942, in the midst of the Second World War. With so many men overseas fighting in the war, women have been enlisted to hold down the fort at home. At the Oberon Theatre, a respected Shakespearean playhouse, its director Andrew Dalton and many of its actors have been enlisted in the military, so the board of directors is contemplating canceling the upcoming season. The director’s wife, Maggie Dalton (Michelle Hand), has other ideas, however, and she approaches the Oberon’s celebrated leading lady Celeste Fielding (Kari Ely) with an unusual idea–why not keep the season going, and go ahead with producing the planned production of Shakespeare’s Henriad (Henry IV parts 1 and 2, and Henry V), but with a cast of women? After a bit of convincing, the board’s somewhat obtuse chairman Ellsworth Snow (Gary Wayne Barker) agrees, and his wife Winnifred (Katy Keating) signs up to participate. Then, casting needs to happen, as Maggie works with stage manager Stuart (Ben Nordstrom) and seamstress and costumer Ida (Jacqueline Thompson) to prepare for the play, eventually casting two young women whose husbands are serving overseas–the enthusiastic June (Mary McNulty), and the more reticent but highly talented Grace (Laura Resinger). As rehearsal proceeds, Maggie and company encounter various obstacles and conundrums, such as dealing with various societal restrictions, biases and prejudices, as well as efforts to keep up morale during the war as most of the women have husbands who are serving. There’s also the issue of long-time “star” Celeste, who is facing the reality of aging out of some of her most beloved roles, and Maggie’s efforts to find her own voice as a director rather than living in the shadow of her well-respected husband. Some of the more specific plot points are better to find out as the play goes along, but it’s an excellent look at challenging widely accepted conventions and injustices of the time while also providing a window into life in the 1940s in terms of sights, sounds, cultural references, and styles.

The advertising is billing this show as “A League of Their Own meets Henry V“, and I think that’s an apt comparison, because in addition to its World War II-era setting, one of the things that characterized the film A League of Their Own was its clear affection for its subject matter, which in that case was baseball. In Into the Breeches! the subject is theatre, and the affection is on clear display. It provides a look at the inner workings of a theatre in the 1940s, as well as an examination of themes from Shakespeare as applied to the situations in the story, and how the company eventually uses those applications in their production. It’s also a nice touch that playwright George Brant’s script–which has been produced before in other cities–has been adapted slightly to adjust the setting to St. Louis. The setting makes the story even more immediate.

Speaking of setting, the production values here are superb. Margery and Peter Spack have designed a set that works as something of a time machine, re-creating the backstage of a 1940s theatre in exquisite detail. Michelle Friedman Siler’s costumes are also excellently detailed and authentic to the era. There’s also strong atmospheric lighting by Joe Clapper and impressive sound design by Rusty Wandall, taking the audience back to the 1940s with clarity and charm.

There’s a wonderful cast here, too, led by the ideally cast Hand as Maggie, bringing an air of determination and authority as well as vulnerability to her role. Ely is also a marvel as Celeste, hamming it up when appropriate but also portraying a credible sense of the consummate actress and a degree of insecurity about the passage of time. There are also excellent performances from Keating, believably playing older as the enthusiastic Winnifred; Resinger as the initially fearful but determined, talented Grace; McNulty as the energetic June; Thompson as the resourceful, also determined Ida; Nordstrom, who has some excellent comic moments as Stuart, who finds delight in his new role; and Barker, who lends his support as the stubborn, set-in-his ways but ultimately persuadable Ellsworth. It’s a strong ensemble all around, and a real sense of rapport develops among them that adds to the overall momentum of the play, to the point where, when the show eventually ends, I wish it could continue, to spend just a little more time with these characters and witnessing what they have created.

Into the Breeches! is an intelligent, funny, sometimes poignant play that makes excellent use of its time, place, and Shakespearean source material. It’s about challenging conventions, pushing boundaries, forming bonds of friendship and family, and an unmistakable love of the theatrical. In fact, I could easily see this show being adapted as a film. If the playwright isn’t exploring that possibility already, he should. I think it could work. It’s also a wonderful way to kick off a new chapter for Shakespeare Festival St. Louis, and it makes me even more eager to see what’s ahead for the “In the Works” series.

Michelle Hand, Laura Resinger, Kari Ely
Photo by Phillip Hamer Photography
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Shakespeare Festival St. Louis is presenting Into the Breeches! at the Grandel Theatre until November 18, 2018.

 

 

 

 

 

Admissions
by Joshua Harmon
Directed by Steven Woolf
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Studio
October 28, 2018

Thom Niemann, R. Ward Duffy, Henny Russell Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Rep’s first Studio production of the season is Joshua Harmon’s Admissions, which combines comedy and drama in a highly thought-provoking combination that looks at the highly charged topics of race and privilege particularly in the field of academics. It looks at an issue many families deal with–education for their children–and explores it through the eyes of a prep school administrator in Connecticut and her family. It’s also a critical look at whiteness and white privilege that’s sure to make its audience think.

In the interview with playwright Joshua Harmon in the program, he said he wanted to write a play where the characters’ whiteness is on clear display, in terms of how they live, think, and make decisions regarding race. It’s particularly focusing on white liberals, and a family of academics that has a degree of privilege that’s so ingrained they don’t even seem to notice it–not really, anyway, even if they say they do, and when anyone else tries to point it out, that’s when things get especially uncomfortable. The central figure is Sherri Rosen-Mason (Henny Russell), the admissions officer for a prestigious Connecticut prep school. She’s spent most of her career in the effort to increase the mostly-white school’s percentage of non-white students. Her husband, Bill (R. Ward Duffy) is the head of the school, and together they take pride in their diversity efforts. Their son, Charlie (Thom Niemann), is a high-achieving student at the school and has high hopes of attending Yale. Essentially, the plot shows how this family is presented with a series of dilemmas that challenge their perceptions of themselves and others, calling into question exactly how “progressive” they really are, and how much they will rely on their own privilege when they know it will help their own son in the quest to go to the “right” kind of college. The issue of appearance and numbers vs. people comes up a lot, particularly in situations involving Sherri’s friend Ginnie (Kate Udall), who is married to a teacher at the school who is black, and whose son–Charlie’s best friend–is also applying to Yale. There’s also a mostly comic subplot in which Sherri’s colleague Roberta (Barbara Kingsley) is trying to produce a new academic catalogue for the school, but Sherri wants to make sure it encourages diversity.

This is a show that raises several important issues and takes a hard look at privilege and self-awareness, or lack thereof. It raises a lot of questions but doesn’t exactly answer them, at least not completely. Mostly, this is a look at issues that seriously need to be talked about, portrayed by characters who don’t always know how to respond to those questions. These characters are relatable to a point, and I think a large point of the story is to have us–and particularly, white audience members–asking questions of ourselves–how much do we see our own privilege? Do we see racism or biases within ourselves? If we had the chance to give up some of our privilege to truly help someone else, would we? Or would we encourage our loved ones to do so? Do we see how we can come across to those around us? How important is “elite” education? Those are only some of the questions raised by this play, and they’re embodied by characters that are often relatable and sometimes, but not always, likable.

The scenic design is perfectly realized, recreating the world of an upper middle class New England family and Sherri’s office at the prestigious prep school that forms the center of this family’s world. Bill Clarke’s set is detailed and specific, and Lou Bird’s costumes suit the characters well. There’s also excellent evocative lighting by Nathan W. Schuer and sound by Rusty Wandall. All these aspects work together to create the world these characters inhabit, which is at once a realistic representation and a stereotype.

The small cast does an excellent job here, bringing their characters to life credibly, navigating the play’s sometimes witty, sometimes sharply comic, sometimes dramatic tone well. Russell has perhaps the most difficult job as Sherri, the well-meaning but sometimes clueless center of the production. She and the equally strong Duffy–amiable but also clueless in his own way–anchor the production. Niemann is also strong, giving a sometimes obtuse, sometimes sensitive, ultimately engaging performance as the sometimes entitled, sometimes confused Charlie, and Udall also makes a strong impression as the initially upbeat but increasingly conflicted Ginnie. Kingsley, as the perpetually exasperated Roberta, gives the most obviously comic performance and provides a great deal of energy and personality to her scenes.

Admissions is a play that should have audiences talking. There are some uncomfortable concepts, and truths, here, and a challenge in the sometimes deceptively lighter tone. There are also awkward moments, such as when the audience enthusiastically applauds one speech, only to have the character immediately chastised for the same speech. I’m not sure this play does everything the playwright says he wants it to do, but what it does best is raise questions. It’s a strong start to the Studio season at the Rep.

Henny Russell, Barbara Kingsley
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting Admissions in the Studio until November 11, 2018.

Whither Should I Fly
by Amanda Wales and Gabe Taylor
Devised by the Ensemble
Directed by Gabe Taylor
Theatre Nuevo and ERA
October 27, 2018

Cast of Whither Should I Fly Photo: Theatre Nuevo

When I was a university student in the early 1990s, I took a “New Religious Movements” class in which the professor, in addition to looking at more “traditionally” defined modern religious sects, also made a point of highlighting the cult-like aspects of various multi-level marketing organizations. Now, over 25 years later in St. Louis, Theatre Nuevo and ERA take this comparison even further and more literal in the latest FAUSTival production, Whither Should I Fly.

In this case, the multilevel marketing organization is the religious group, or more specifically, a coven of witches. Called “Invoke”, the organization appeals to young women who have been harassed by men, promising them freedom over their own destiny in exchange for a series of sacrifices as they climb the ladder of advancement in the organization. The story takes the audience along on the journey of one member, Helen (Thalia Cruz), as she is recruited, learns about the structure of the organization, and rises through its ranks–all named after birds–hoping to achieve the coveted title of “Raven”. We meet the various members of the coven: Gaia (Miranda Jagels-Félix), Eliza (Tori Thomas), Vera (Amanda Wales), Nyx (Marcy Wiegert), and the coven’s leader, Mari (Alicen Moser), as they get to know Helen and show her the ways of Invoke, stressing its rewards and the sacrifices that need to be made to achieve higher levels. Rituals are performed, ambitions are discussed, and a series of promo videos are shown as Helen and the coven work their ways through the ranks and prepare a presentation at the organization’s annual conference, where several surprises are in store. It’s a chilling, sometimes darkly funny and occasionally unsettlingly story that plays out the Faustian theme in a unique but clearly defined way, It also includes immersive elements, as the coven members usher the audience into the space and ask them questions upon entry.

The space, in the basement of the Centene Center for the Arts in Grand Center, is dark and somewhat confined, adding to the chilling atmosphere of the production. Director Gabe Taylor also designed the set and sound for this production, outfitting the space with an eerie, otherworldly sort of atmosphere. Ben Lewis’s lighting and Marcy Wiegert’s bold costume design also add to the overall mood and eerie style of the production. The cast, led by Moser as the mysterious, insistent Mari and Cruz as the initially reticent but increasingly eager and ambitious Helen, is strong. Ensemble chemistry is particularly essential in a production like this, and this production has that, with energy and enthusiasm from all of the players.

This is an intriguing production, even if some of its elements are overly long and dragged out, particularly a repetitive song that’s well-sung, but doesn’t really need to be sung in its entirety three times. The atmosphere and the cast make the show compelling, as concepts of women’s agency, emotional manipulation, and the nature of ambition are explored. It’s a fitting production for Halloween season with its horror and thriller elements. This is another creative entry in the extended collaboration that is FAUSTival. It’s a memorable, thought-provoking and inventively structured experience.

Theatre Nuevo and ERA are presenting Whither Should I Fly at the Centene Center for the Arts until November 10, 2018

Macbeth: Come Like Shadows
by William Shakespeare, etc.
Directed by Sean Patrick Higgins and Kelly Hummert
Rebel and Misfits Productions
October 25, 2018

Sean Patrick HIggins, Kelly Hummert
Photo by Eric Woolsey
Rebel and Misfits Productions

So, you park your car at a sports bar in Soulard, get on a bus, and are transported to Scotland–or an alternate universe Scotland that’s the invention of the devisers in a truly creative immersive theatre production of Macbeth that’s happening right now in St. Louis. Macbeth: Come Like Shadows is an inventive, confrontational, well-thought-out and strongly cast production that puts you into the middle of the story.

Macbeth: Come Like Shadows is immersive, but it’s also a play. Essentially, it’s a straightforward production of Macbeth in an unusual setting, with a few additions to the script and an additional devised pre-show that adds further context to the production. The setting is more or less modern, in an alternate reality in which Scotland has been taken over by an extreme right-wing dictator and freedom of expression has been severely limited. Most of the context, though, comes from the pre-show, in which audience members wander through the performance space in a semi-restored former church building and overhear conversations among the various characters, including the dictatorial Duncan  (Jeff Cummings) and his son Malcolm (Paul Cereghino), who is not inclined toward leadership. There’s also Lady Macbeth (Kelly Hummert), who is disillusioned for many reasons, including Duncan’s policies, the absence of her soldier husband (Sean Patrick Higgins), and a recent personal disappointment that she shares with her close companions Bianca (Patrice Foster) and Lady Macduff (Hailey Medrano), who has a new baby and is also missing her husband (Spencer Sickmann), who is currently at war and seems to never be home. Milling about the sanctuary that also includes a skate park, audience members can witness these various conversations and get an idea of the secretive, overly authoritarian regime, before Macbeth and Banquo (Shane Signorino) arrive and are confronted by the Weird Sisters (Tielere Cheatem, Alison Linderer, Cynthia Pohlson) to signal the beginning of the more linear play. The pre-show adds a lot of context to the interpretation of the characters and situations here, and the result is a chilling portrayal of a highly realistic situation, dealing with issues such as the polarization of society, totalitarianism, ambition, and the corruption of power. The up-close-and-personal arrangement brings the audience into the action as participants in the action, cast as war refugees and, at times, split into groups as part of the story, so this is a play that may be worth seeing–and experiencing–more than once, because depending on where you stand and what numbers are stamped onto your hand and wrist at the entry point, the experience can vary dramatically.

The setting, the backstory, and some new twists on the characters make this a whole new take on Macbeth, with more focus on the central couple, and on Lady M in particular, as well as some different context and reasoning behind their ambitions, as well as a drastically different interpretation of several characters, especially Duncan, Malcolm, and even the witches, who here seem more like ethereal mystical figures. Lady M, as embodied in a bold performance by Hummert, is every bit her husband’s partner here, and his rise to power is also hers, which makes her ultimate unraveling even more devastating. The obvious affection and attraction between the Macbeths is readily apparent as well, as the chemistry between Hummert and Higgins is palpable. Higgins’ journey from ambition to power is also made more personal here, and especially jarring in a key scene in which he gives a speech that says one thing, while the actions of his army around him seems to say something chillingly different. There are strong performances all around, from Sickmann’s single-minded Macduff, to Medrano’s neglected Lady Macduff, to Foster’s devoted Bianca, to the otherworldly Weird Sisters of Cheatem, Linderer, and Pohlson, as well as Cummings’s coolly pragmatic Duncan and Cereghino’s conflicted Malcolm.  It’s a bold, visceral, confrontational production that works on many levels, from the presentational to the personal.

Technically, the production values are impressive. The performance space poses particular challenges from its sheer size to its age, but the world of the play has been well realized here by Rebel and MIsfits’ technical team. Joe Novak’s set mostly consists of a few furniture pieces–most notably a large four-poster bed that is the focal point for many moments involving the Macbeths. The other major focus point is the skate park ramps on the other side of the performance area, although a few other areas in the room are also put to excellent use. The sound is something of a challenge–there’s an ominous soundtrack by Adam Frick-Verdine that adds a lot to the mood of the production, but the space itself is cavernous and often makes hearing dialogue difficult. Still, the visual aspects of the production are nothing short of stunning–from Eileen Engel’s memorable costumes to Jon Ontiveros’ truly striking lighting, illuminating the space in distinctive and colorful ways that make the most of the space and amplify the emotion of the production.

The interactive nature of this show can seem daunting at first if you’re unfamiliar with this type of theatre. I for one was more than a little nervous approaching this show, being the introvert that I am. Still, even though it took some time to adjust to the format, after a while I was able to get more into the spirit of the production. This production isn’t quite as “in-your-face” as I was fearing, but it’s certainly personal and as interactive as you want it to be, and it’s helpful to check out the company’s website for details of what to expect. You also get an email with instructions upon reserving your ticket. You can talk to the actors if you want, or you can keep your distance and be more of a people-watcher. It’s a daring undertaking, and I would think it would be especially conducive to repeat viewings. This is Macbeth like you’ve never seen it before, and it’s thrilling.

Cast of Macbeth: Come Like Shadows
Photo by Eric Woolsey
Rebel and Misfits Productions

Rebel and Misfits Productions is presenting Macbeth: Come Like Shadows until November 10, 2018