Every now and then, a person needs to see Macbeth. Not just because it is a great play, but because that guy named Shakespeare had an ability to create stories that resonate in every age — sometimes with startling clarity.
Take Macbeth, an ambitious and immoral leader who listens attentively to the prophecies and advice spilling out of three nattering apparitions, then plans his actions based on their weird statements. There's clearly a direct comparison between that relationship and our current POTUS and his early morning seances with the three couch-bound talking heads on "Fox & Friends."
Many of Shakespeare's plays are effortlessly contemporary, even without the often distracting frou-frou of modern set design. And happily, as with last year's Hamlet, director Charles Fee has decided to keep big Mac anchored where it belongs in the 17th century, on a stage designed by Russell Metheny that echoes the original Globe Theatre (except for the smooth hydraulic trapdoors). Plus some audience members are seated on the stage in two alcoves, close enough to get some fake blood on their shirt sleeves.
Now at Great Lakes Theater, this trot through the gore and treachery of Macbeth relies on Lynn Robert Berg in the title role. And that faith is not misplaced, as Berg thrashes about admirably, when tormented by doubt early on and then when his vengeful rage asserts itself even more fully in Act 2.
Berg is complemented with wicked intent by Erin Partin, whose Lady Macbeth bubbles as fiercely as the witches' caldron with plots and suspicions. The two of them fashion a ferocious, molten core at the center of this production, and their scenes are by far the most fully realized.
One has to wonder, however, why longtime GLT actor Andrew May, who has been gone for several years, is relegated to being one of the interchangeable Scottish Nobles (Lennox or Ross, take your pick). May was very recently hamstrung by being the virtually unmoving victim in a flawed production of Misery at GLT, and now here is this extraordinary actor holding up scenery in Macbeth. Seems like a waste of prodigious talent.
In any case, this company of professionals creates a Macbeth that is frequently powerful and transporting. The witches (Laura Welsh Berg, Jodi Dominick and Meredith Lark), arrayed in voluminous black cloaks and equipped with weaponized walking sticks, skitter about like images from a particularly disturbing nightmare. Their effect on Macbeth and the audience is palpable.
Also excellent are David Anthony Smith as King Duncan, Jonathan Dyrud as Mac's best buddy Banquo, and Dominick as Lady Macduff — before each of them is killed by Macbeth in his quest for total power. It's a more graphic version of the "terminations" occurring in our country's governmental castle, the White House.
There is precious little comic relief in this script, but Aled Davies adds a chuckle or two as Seyton, Macbeth's attendant. When he delivers the Porter's soliloquy as a series of knock-knock jokes, you laugh and cringe since the drunken servant's imaginings of Macbeth's gate as the gateway to hell isn't far off the mark.
The one place where this production falls short of the mark is in making many of the interstitial scenes as accessible as they could be. There is always a tendency with Shakespeare to let his gorgeous language flow, unimpeded by beats that might make the antique phrasing easier to understand for 21st century ears. But director Fee often allows scenes to ride that iambic pentameter wave, with the risk of leaving in the dust those trying to follow the dialogue.
The witches' prophecies are what power a lot of the carnage in this play, and a couple of them don't come off as effectively as possible. Early on, Macbeth was told that he would only be defeated "when Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane." Mac is mollified, not understanding that Malcolm's troops will cut branches from the forest and use them as camouflage as they advance. But having a couple cast members walk back and forth in a foggy mist upstage with little potted seedlings doesn't quite capture the moment.
Another prophecy is lame, and only Shakespeare is to blame. Macbeth is told that he cannot be killed because "... none of woman born shall harm Macbeth." Seems like an airtight guarantee against murder, until it's revealed that his arch rival Macduff (Nick Steen) was "untimely ripped" from his mother's womb. Okay, he wasn't technically "born" in the traditional sense, but a Caesarian procedure seems a tiny technicality on which to hang one of the greatest plays ever written. Work on that, will you Mr. S?
Even while there are stretches of dialogue that are difficult to follow, this production of Macbeth — augmented by Kim Krumm Sorenson's period costumes and Matthew Webb's well-accented sound design — has enough blood lust and evil to satisfy old Mac friends as well as newcomers.