Let's face it, the whole dust-up in the "Scottish Play" could have been avoided if the main characters had simply considered the witches and their cryptic forecasts a barely tolerable skit by a troupe of street performers. Then they could have flipped them a haypenny and gone back to their business. But then, we wouldn't have the play that still absorbs us to this day with its shifting assumptions, blood and gore, hallucinations, apparitions, and dazzling ambiguities.
When watching a tragedy such as the story of Macbeth, there is a huge temptation to analogize everything to the Shakespearian drama unfolding in Washington, D.C. That daily disaster, centered on a character even old Will couldn't have conjured up, is of such monumental import that the mind reels.
Many of us want to pretend that the current administration, with its palace intrigues and raving and ranting leader, took place 400 years ago so we could relax and watch the ghastly proceedings from afar. Alas, no such luck. Since we are currently living in the belly of the beast, entertainments such as Macbeth serve as a faint balm, of sorts, to divert us from the present.
So, Macbeth and his Lady take the witches prophecies at face value, believing that their destiny has been laid out before them if they only embark on a killing spree, and we're off and running in this latest production of a play that is indeed full of sound and fury. And the production by the Cleveland Shakespeare Festival, coming in at a tidy 100 minutes, has several strong points. CSF is Cleveland's version of "Shakespeare in the Park." And since they perform in different leafy glens all across the area, for free, it's an undeniable treat for anyone to indulge on a summer's eve.
In this iteration, Eric Perusek is a dark and troubled Macbeth, goaded on to heinous activities by his wife, played with quiet ferocity by Cat R. Kenney. When Mr. M loses his nerve about killing King Duncan, Lady M. defaults to a truly horrific example to stiffen his spine: "I have given suck and know how tender it is to love the babe that milks me. I would, while it was smiling in my face, have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums and dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you have done this." Well, okay then.
In short order, Duncan is dead, Macbeth is King, and he should be happy but he's still paranoid, just like — No! No more Trump references! Anyhow, Mac hires a hit team to eliminate his army buddy Banquo (Allen Branstein, an actor who both lives and dies on stage with consummate relish), only to be haunted by Banquo's ghost at a big banquet. Then, surprise! Duncan's ghost also shows up, making it a de facto ghost convention. Pretty soon, you expect Casper the Friendly Ghost, the Ghost of Christmas Past, and Freddy Krueger to wander through as well, but director Tyson Douglas Rand doesn't stretch it that far.
Instead, Rand keeps the pace clipping along in this truncated version, aware that many in the audience may be unknowingly encountering Shakespeare while taking their pooch on a poop trot. And that's part of the charm of free outdoor Shakespeare: It's just there all of a sudden, in front of you. And it's hard to look away.
It's especially hard when performers such as Robert Hawkes are declaiming. Whether as Duncan, the drunken Porter, or the Doctor, Hawkes breathes fresh life into his characters. As do the three witches who are embodied by Khaki Hermann, Keith Kornajcik and Jeanne Madison.
Over the years, CSF has augmented its technical prowess in the open air, so now the performers are easily heard while recorded sound effects and music add to the ambiance. And since the actors often walk off the stage and then circle back around and through the audience to make their next entrance, it feels as if everyone is part of the performance.
Some who see Shakespeare are put off by the complexity of the language and the labyrinthine plots, but that's no reason not to attend shows such as this. Especially with Macbeth, there are tons of questions that intentionally go unanswered, as the characters themselves grapple with uncertainty. Nothing is what it seems, so don't worry if you can't figure it all out. Shakespearian scholars have been batting Ph.D. theses back and forth for eons and not coming to any conclusions.
So just pack up your blanket or lawn chair and come out to admire the glorious language, and be astounded by an assortment of pompous, craven, flawed, occasionally heroic but often morally corrupt characters that you'll see nowhere else. Except on CNN.