Look deep into the haunted pools of Scott Coopwood’s painted eyes as he plays the glorious warrior Macbeth and you find a man who has embraced his darkest essence. He has relentlessly murdered to feed an ambition he scarcely knew he had, and now that ambition has consumed him and he has become it.
Rising to the challenge of creating one of theater’s most memorable characters, Coopwood’s steely Macbeth galvanizes and ultimately carries an ambitious but uneven new adaptation of the play now at Capital Stage.
The tragedy of “Macbeth” has always been one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, but also one of the playwright’s most complex and emotionally intricate works. The narrative’s moody texture and sensational action can be superficially exploited, but the deeply disturbing and knotted characters that are Macbeth and his power-coveting wife, Lady Macbeth, require nuance and accessibility.
Coopwood and the chilling Janis Stevens give us both, but their characters seem to feed less off each other than off their own internal drives and demons.
Adapter and director Stephanie Gularte has set the play in a ravaged, post-apocalyptic landscape of gritty guerrilla warfare where ragged bands of soldiers ambush one another with crude swords and knives. Video projections (by Benjamin T. Ismail) showing images of Macbeth (representing his internal struggles and hallucinations) were alternately creative and not entirely convincing.
More effective are the prophetic gas-mask-wearing witches who set the play’s supernatural tone with spooky electronically treated voices, yet their spells and incantations don’t quite take hold, either. (The witches spoke in normal voices at times in the second act, the result of what appeared to be a first-weekend glitch.)
“Macbeth” tells a claustrophobic, intimate story set against the grand scale of armies at war. The strength of this production lies in Coopwood’s ability to communicate the great poetry of Shakespeare’s language and its meaning as his Macbeth transforms before us.
At first a simple soldier instinctively at home in battle, he is hesitant to assert himself toward the ends the witches have prophesied for him, that he will become the king of Scotland. He knows he can wear the crown only if King Duncan (an excellent, eccentric performance by Harry Harris) dies and there are no heirs, but Duncan has a son, Malcolm (Dan Fagan).
Stevens’ Lady Macbeth, flashing both heat and cold-blooded resolve, effectively formulates the plan to dispatch Duncan, but complicating the succession for Macbeth is a second prophecy that foretells that his friend and ally Banquo will produce children who will produce kings.
Most affecting in the ensemble are Jessica Chisum and Shaun Carroll.
The gruesome elements of the play are not hidden here, but not surprisingly, the language has more impact than the gore.
STARS: * * 1/2