In the late 1930s, a radio drama premiered with an ominous narrated introduction: “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!”
But the Shadow had nothing on William Shakespeare who, 300 years earlier, had written “Macbeth,” the seminal story of a darkness that envelops a nation and an evil so potent that it devours the hearts and minds of an ambitious man and woman.
“Macbeth" is plenty powerful when read on page, but it of course reaches its full expression when performed on stage. Sacramento Theatre Company’s stunning new production pays proper tribute to the tragedy with a talented cast and near-magical use of 21st-century theater lighting, sound and set design, all adding to an captivating experience.
“Macbeth” takes place in 11th-century Scotland and centers on the Scottish general Macbeth, his wife Lady Macbeth, their unfettered pursuit of power and their subsequent slide into madness once they achieve it.
When we first meet Macbeth, he and a fellow general, Banquo, are returning from a victorious battle. They happen upon three witches, referred to throughout as “the weird sisters." The witches, seeing the future, tell Macbeth that the sitting king of Scotland, King Duncan, soon will promote him and that Macbeth eventually will become king himself.
Macbeth is seduced by the idea. Lady Macbeth, learning of the prophecy and eager to become queen, urges her husband to kill Duncan when he comes to visit.
The deed is done, Macbeth becomes king, and he turns to the witches and enlists their counsel as he and his henchmen – fueled by Macbeth’s narcissism and growing paranoia -- begin a murderous rampage to protect his crown. Lady Macbeth, meanwhile, becomes overcome with guilt and teeters toward insanity.
William Elsman, as Macbeth, and Atim Udoffia, as Lady Macbeth, are captivating and often painful to watch as their grasp on reality slowly disintegrates.
In some ways, Udoffia’s Lady Macbeth is more frightening than Elsman’s Macbeth. To be sure, Elsman conveys pure intimidation as he rages and spews invective, all the time revealing hints of unraveling. Udoffia does not display the same overtly violent urges, but she is unnerving when she breaks out in unexpected, uncontrolled laughter or when she suddenly changes her thoughts and cadence mid-sentence.
And she is mesmerizing in Lady Macbeth’s signature scene. Undone by remorse over Duncan’s murder, she delivers a haunting soliloquy as she sleepwalks throughout the castle and imagines that a spot of the king’s blood has stained her hand: “Out damn spot! Out, I say! … Yet who would have thought the old man to have so much blood in him.”
The three witches -- played by Janet Motenko, Ruby Sketchley and Monique Lonergan -- are eccentric and entrancing throughout as demonic soothsayers with feral-like qualities. The trio perform as if they all have had one too many sips of their bubbling potions. In particular, Lonergan, a 17-year-old member of the company’s Young Professionals Conservatory, is spellbinding as she skitters to and fro, a wild animal on two legs.
Director Casey McClellan has his hands full as he directs 18 actors performing 35 roles in all (six of the actors are members of the Youth Professional Conservatory, and will take turns in alternating performances throughout the run). The play feels like it loses some steam toward the end of the 70-minute first act. But overall, and especially in the second act, McClellan does a masterful job of ensuring the ensemble conveys Shakespeare's sense of evil and darkness, desperation and instability.
The emotional and visceral impact of STC's “Macbeth” benefits as much if not more so than any recent area production from the strength and artistry of its non-acting elements.
Lighting designer April George, sound designer William Myers and scenic designer Jessica Bertine have conspired to create a complementary look, sound and feel to this production that is considerably greater than the sum of their individual contributions: spooky lighting, full of shadows and sinister projected images; foreboding cracks and flashes of thunder and lightning; the repeated squawking of vultures in the distance; the harsh, cold look of castles where love and sentimentality go to wither and perish; and the hallucinogenic haze of the Scottish heath where the witches do their business.
"Macbeth" always has been a warning as much as it is a play, a reminder of how easily power can corrupt, especially for those who seek to achieve it by any means necessary. Audiences experiencing this powerful production likely will find that timeless message impossible to ignore.
Mitchel Benson is The Bee’s theater critic and a freelance writer. Contact him at email@example.com
3 1/2 stars
What: One of the greatest works of English literature, this tragedy of evil, murder and madness tells the story of an ambitious Scottish general and his wife who will do anything to become king and queen – and stop at nothing to keep their crowns. Written by William Shakespeare. Directed by Casey McClellan.
Where: Sacramento Theatre Company, Main Stage, 1419 J St., Sacramento
When: 7 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays; and 2 p.m. Sundays. Through March 18.
Cost: $31-38, discounts available for students, seniors and military.
Information: 916-443-6722 or www.sactheatre.org
Running time: About two hours and 20 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission