American Century Theater Voodoo MacbethBy Joe Adcock • Mar 26th, 2013 • Category: Reviews
American Century Theater: (Info) (Web)
Gunston Theatre Two, Arlington, VA
Through April 13th
2:15 with intermission
$35-$40/$32-$47 Seniors, Students, Military
Reviewed March 23rd, 2013
Voodoo Macbeth was a unique American dramatic achievement. The production was the sensation of the 1936 New York theater season, devised and staged by the ever-sensational theatrical wunderkind Orson Welles. It had a cast of 104 actors — all African-American. It was set in early 19th Century Haiti. That country’s revolutionary caudillo Henri Christophe conflates with Macbeth, William Shakespeare’s 11th Century warrior baron who evolves from hero to tyrant.
The current American Century Theater production is billed as Voodoo Macbeth. In a strict sense, director Kathleen Akerley’s show is no such thing.
Most conspicuously, it has a cast of 13 — nearly all white guys. Yes, guys. The fascinating Lady Macbeth, played by a male actor, is renamed “Gruoch.” Perhaps as a result of some gene-damaging environmental pollution calamity (the year is 2033) gender, among other things, has gotten scrambled. Matt Dewberry, a stocky actor with a stubbly beard, belts out the famous lines “Unsex me here… Come to my woman’s breasts and take my milk for gall.” This Gruoch character later avers to the wavering Macbeth, “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 pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums and dashed his brains out, had I sworn as you have done.”
(As you may remember, Macbeth, prompted by malicious witches and by his wife, decides — and then undecides — and then redecides — to kill the king of Scotland and usurp the throne. Havoc ensues.)
Instead of Medieval Scotland or Haiti 200 years ago, director Akerley opts for a 21st Century post apocalyptic dystopia. The witches are some sort of Druid special forces ninjas. They undermine a crumbling Christian military autocracy that combines decadent macho violence addiction with degenerate faux Christian magical thinking. Religious ceremonies combine Latin Mass chanting with a fondness for the gospel hymn “Amazing Grace.” Also, there’s a self-stabbing compulsion, with accompanying blood-letting, that would impress even pre-Columbian Mexican priests.
So… no… this is certainly not an authentic Voodoo Macbeth. It might more accurately be called a Mishmash Macbeth. The mix even includes vague intimations of zombie resurrection rituals that are a blurry reflection of the Haitian culture exploited by the Voodoo Macbeth of 77 years ago.
Which is not to say that Akerley’s production lacks theatrical oomph. Her well-rehearsed male ensemble surrenders enthusiastically to a mystique of violence and superstition. They whip up frenzies that might look familiar to pre-Christian Middle-European berserker warriors.
William Hayes as the ninja witch honcho is consistently sinister and menacing, with occasional crescendos of berserk fury. He and his minions eventually intoxicate Macbeth — played by Joseph Carlson — with their thrilling rage.
Carlson has a steady grip on his character, a paragon of nihilistic poetry fused with murderous and self-destructive violence. Sometimes in his shaping of Macbeth’s psychotic moodiness Carlson descends into a madman mumble, which is frustrating if you delight in every word of Macbeth’s amazing soliloquies — like the one that begins with “My life has fallen into the sear, the yellow leaf….” But at least Carlson never falls into the unmodulated rant that can sink inexperienced Shakespearean actors. Some of Akerley’s actors do indeed succumb to pull of unmodulated rant.
Creating an emblem of gory mayhem is Frank Britton, who plays Macbeth’s betrayed ally Banquo. Britton comes off as candid OK guy who morphs into a blood-smeared zombie bent on revenge. Britton is the most spectacular of “makeup/gore effects” artist Casey Kaleba. Kaleba is also in charge of the fight choreography that regularly punctuates the action. Conflict tools include guns, knives, swords and good old hand-to-hand combat.
Kathleen Akerley is an all-round theater person. In addition to directing, she designed costumes (combat fatigues mostly) and a minimalist setting (sparsely furnished open areas.) In her attempt to create a sense of irrational frenzy, Akerley often has her actors crouching and thrashing on the floor. Since her theater has no actual raised stage, only audience members in the front row have a clear view of these intense moments.
However, it is the pervasive sense of irrational frenzy that is the most impressive element of this Macbeth. The pathological fervor is in no way glamorized as it would be in typical action/adventure movies and TV shows. One needn’t imagine a bizarre dangerous-to-self-and-others 2033 cult of violence to see the pertinacity of Akerley’s show. Alas, the fanatical distortion of patriotism, religion, masculinity and guns is only too familiar to us right here and right now.
That’s a Vietamese term for Captain. It’s also a term that American soldiers took to calling their own superiors during the Vietnam War, one of the many terms from the local language that migrated into the daily conversation of English speakers. And it’s the word that occurred to me when I was trying to solve the problem of why people who are not Scottish would call a man “the Thane.”
It’s a problem that, by all accounts, Orson Welles either didn’t solve or didn’t view as a problem. He famously moved the action of he play to Haiti but without changing the national references (there is short video evidence that he, at least on some lines, let the actors whiff on the geography: obviously that’s easier to do with “Hail King of Scotland” than “Stands Scotland where it did?”) He kept the Scottish titles. I grant, this is no longer isolated to Welles: By now everyone of Shakespeare’s plays has been forced into the sometimes-constraining clothing of a cultural-temporal conceit (Nazis! Pirates! Pirate Nazis from Space! Who happen to call each other “Thane!”) But my job with this project was to find a way to make Welles’ play “work”, the same way it’s my job to solve any other play I’m lucky enough to get hired to direct (and if you’re looking for a frame-by-frame re-creation of the Federal Theatre Project as the best and most humble way I might have achieved that: a. No and b. I point you to 1. his 104-person cast of largely untrained actors who represented a 2. subset of the population that far too many people considered to be less than fully human enacting 3. a form of magic meant to genuinely shock an audience inured to the sing-song impotence presumably much more menacing to King James than to Franklin Roosevelt and that would scare us now only if I actually put snakes on the stage.) And solving this text meant working with fairly aggressive text changes Welles made, while working to make the Welles/Shakespeare structure a sturdy one, navigable by actors who understand their right to demand coherent given circumstances and playable beat changes.
#1 is easy: Hire fewer of them. #2 is trickier: Many -isms plague us still, but I believed it was necessary to capture Welles’ choice by finding the group that is systematically viewed by having less than full humanity, whatever group dismissed before they even open their collective mouths: not a group that still has to defend itself against racists and sexists but the group that no one but it’s own members would defend. And I still believe that group to be Conservative Christians, famously called out for “clinging” to their guns and religion. Since it’s a play that starts and ends with war, I put my group in the American military, and #3 solves itself. A generation that decided to produce one, not two, but seven Saw movies obviously is working something out about self-mutilation, which dovetails neatly with flesh mortification rituals both of faith and military hardihood.
It remained only to integrate my army in Scotland. After all this explication, I won’t lay out the storyline I created for the actors about the collapsing European economies and the American response to both Russia’s opportunism and its energy independence: I leave you to have your own fun with it. It’s 2033 and we’ve been in Scotland since 2022. The Army is no longer in touch with home. They’ve had to make Scotland home, some uneasily, some wholeheartedly, some having even started families. They’re carrying on the war on both flanks. They’re bolstering up holes in their faith with indigenous spiritual practices. And instead of Dai Uy, they call their commander “King.”
-Kathleen Akerley, Director, Voodoo Macbeth
Photos by Johannes Markus
- Banquo: Frank Britton
- Macbeth: Joseph Carlson
- Lennox: Keegan Cassady
- Siward: Evan Crump
- Grouch: Matt Dewberry
- Porter: Cyle Durkee
- Maduff: Christopher Dwyer
- Fleance: James Finley
- Mondor: Nick Hagy
- Hecate: William Hayes
- Ross: James Miller
- Malcolm: Ryan Sellers
- Duncan: Theodore M. Snead
- Director: Kathleen Akerley
- Assistant Directors: Tyler Herman and Annalisa Dias-Mandoly
- Stage Manager: Lindsey E. Moore
- Set and Costume Design: Kathleen Akerley
- Lighting Design: Jason Aufdem-Brinke
- Sound Design: Frank DiSalvo, Jr.
- Assistant Set Designer: Dean Leong
- Costumer: Laura Aspen
- Grouch’s Ritual Cloak Design: Laura Aspen and Annalisa Dias-Mandoly
- Technical Consultant: Michael P. deBlois
- Master Carpenter: Nick Hagy
- Assistant Manager: Mollie Welborn
- Sound Board Operator: Jorge A. Silva
- Fight Choreography, Makeup/Gore Effects: Case Kaleba
- Wardrobe Assistant: Mollie Welborn
- Publicist: Emily Morrison
- Production Photography: Johannes Markus
- Program Design: Michael Sherman
Disclaimer: American Century Theater provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.
This article can be linked to as: http://washingtondc.showbizradio.com/goto/9273.
Joe Adcock lives in Arlington with his wife, daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren. Before retiring last year at age 70, he was theater critic at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer for 27 years. Prior to that, he reviewed plays for the Philadelphia Bulletin, the Texas Observer and the Swarthmore College Phoenix. Non-reviewing journalistic jobs include writing for the Houston Chronicle, the San Juan (Puerto Rico) Star and El Mundo de San Juan. Think about it: most of the papers he worked for no longer exist. Maybe this internet gig has better longevity prospects.