Cal Shakes Interprets 'Macbeth' For Modern Horror Film Fans

Photo: Lady Macbeth (Stacy Ross) and Macbeth (Jud Williford) in Cal Shakes' 'Macbeth.'
Kevin Berne/Courtesy
Lady Macbeth (Stacy Ross) and Macbeth (Jud Williford) in Cal Shakes' 'Macbeth.'

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Photo: The Wyrd Sisters as nurse-nun-things in Cal Shakes' 'Macbeth.'   Photo:    

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Oh, Hamlet, Hamlet, Hamlet, Hamlet. The vampire army has taken the city!" says Othello.

"We must check the castle tower and make sure that no vampire have gotten into our ... home base," solemnly replies Hamlet.

So, that's not Shakespeare. It's from a sketch by the Whitest Kids U' Know, a mildly offensive comedy troupe, and it's funny because, well, obviously, vampire armies. Also because Shakespeare plays never, ever have them. Vampire armies and home bases are recent developments in a culture that loves nothing if not action and special effects.

The truth is, despite a modern audience's supposed ability to connect with the Bard's characters on a deep psychological level, there are usually still barriers to our immediate understanding.

By sheer virtue of time, you can't expect to walk into a conventional Shakespeare production and actually be thrilled by the "ghosts" and "witches" when the last thing you saw was a highly realistic CGI-enhanced vampire army attacking home base ... in 3-D. There's a reason ol' Bill loved a good meta-joke - the dude knew the limitations of his medium.

All of these potential pitfalls serve to enhance the success of director Joel Sass' vision of "Macbeth." Most adaptations of "Macbeth" nowadays opt to play up the dark comedy or characters' internal struggles, rather than risk too literal an interpretation and fail.

Sass' "Macbeth" is both legitimately frightening and a fairly straightforward presentation of the text, though its imagery is still recognizable enough to inspire visceral reactions in even today's audiences.

The opening scene sets the creepy tone as the three Wyrd Sisters drift noiselessly onto the stage. The set is a dilapidated hospital with distinctive haunted, out-of-use loony bin decor, complete with broken windows and dirty tiles.

What's truly terrifying about this scene, however, are the sisters themselves. First of all, they're faceless, and everyone knows that faceless things are scary because you can't see them emote. Their whispery recorded voices play over the speakers, saying things that could be kind of funny-sounding if they were being said by things with faces. Like "hurlyburly."

On top of that, the witches are dressed as nurse-nun-things in white habits that billow eerily in the real breeze blowing through the outdoor Bruns Amphitheater, where the real moon is shrouded by real fog overhead, and real owls hoot somewhere in the night.

It's an effective precursor to the power struggle and violence that follows, and in later scenes the violence becomes a pastiche of brutality. Banquo's (Nicholas Pelczar) murder is a mob killing, and the battle scenes are camo-clad modern warfare. In one scene, Ross (Delia MacDougall) is tortured in a decidedly un-Shakespearean manner, but it works because it allows the audience to experience the suspense and anguish in a way that more closely approximates the way the Bard might have intended.

The performances, on the other hand, are standard Shakespeare fare. Aside from the aforementioned female Ross, there isn't really much toying with gender, despite the fact that much of the dialogue is an extended penis joke.

While too much emphasis on the gender anxiety in the play might have been gimmicky, the completely straight-faced readings of the characters came off as a little uninteresting at times.

This isn't to say that the cast was weak - it just might have been nice to see a Lady Macbeth with an inventive twist, or a Banquo who's got something going on other than unimpeachable saintliness.

Ultimately, though, the ensemble meshes well together. The show feels like a horror movie, except with actual depth. Which means great fun for theatrical thrill-seekers.


Laugh at encroaching vampire armies with Jill at [email protected]

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