Toil and Trouble

Shakespeare’s Macbeth is the story of a Scottish nobleman’s ambition leading to his downfall; the play follows the transformation of a war hero into a murderous villain and traitor, with, to explain such an extreme change, the influence of baleful supernatural forces in the form of three witches, or “weird sisters.” The power of the play derives from the portrayal of evil as an all-consuming, dramatically compelling force in the human psyche. Macbeth’s lucidity—whether speaking to ghosts or encountering phantom daggers or convincing killers to kill, or, in the grand fifth act, going to pieces in a frenzy of resolution and paranoia—keeps us clued into his vantage point as we watch him, like many an historical personage whose reach has exceeded his grasp, put personal gain above public virtue and go down in flames. Eric Ting’s Macbeth 1969, now playing at the Long Wharf, boldly adapts Shakespeare’s text for a new setting—a Veteran’s hospital during the heyday of the U.S. war in Vietnam—and distributes the various parts amongst a cast of three men and three women. Here, Macbeth/Soldier 1 (McKinley Belcher III) is a traumatized soldier returned from war; he visits a severely wounded fellow soldier—Banquo/Soldier 2 (Barret O’Brien)—at the hospital where his own wife (Shirine Babb) is a nurse. The nurses—1/Matron (Socorro Santiago), 2 (Babb), and 3 (Jackie Chung, pregnant and the wife of MacDuff/Civilian (O’Brien)—a draft deserter)—are also the “weird sisters.” It’s an interesting notion to make nurses—who are often both needed and reviled in their service—“witches” to a soldier not quite in his right mind.

Duncan, the benign king Macbeth kills in Shakespeare’s play, is here a wooden politician (George Kulp) who visits the wounded soldier as a campaign stunt and stays to party with the nurses (it’s Christmas), and it’s a compelling idea to imply that a deranged soldier might take it into his head to kill a politician, blaming him for the carnage of the war. Good Soldier 2 finds this treason insupportable, and so Soldier 1 plots to get rid of him too. And for good measure, thanks to dire hallucinations Soldier 1 experiences while undergoing electro-shock, the wife of MacDuff gets put to the sword too. In the end the draft dodger husband returns from exile and offs the culprit. Which I guess suggests that war wins out over other scruples. If there are no atheists in foxholes, there are no pacifists in a fight to the death either.

For Ting’s Macbeth to work, we have to ignore the fact that the text is speaking of thanes and kings and potions and the English army and a moving wood, but, even if we do, that doesn’t mean we’ll enter this new timeframe easily. The show doesn’t recreate the Vietnam War era to me—not even The Archies and The Guess Who on the radio, nor the suggestion that “the insane root” is a joint. What’s more, we have to be willing to indulge oddities: like the “dagger of the mind” speech transposed from preceding the killing of Duncan to preceding the death of Banquo and interlarded with lines about Macbeth’s misgivings about Banquo, or the mad scene of Lady Macbeth witnessed by Nurse 1 and MacDuff, who then learns of his wife’s death from his enemy’s wife. If you know the play well (and I do), it’s best to forget what you know, but there’s a certain amusement that comes from the cut-up quality of the text—so that Nurse 1, before being smothered under a pillow, spouts lines that belong to Malcolm, otherwise not a character in this version.

Mimi Lien’s set is remarkable—it looks and feels like a hospital, and that’s enough right there to estrange one from Shakespeare’s play, so that when Lady Macbeth scrubs the floor rather than her hands (“yet here’s a spot”) it seems perfectly in keeping with the spic-and-span nature of hospitals. Elsewhere incongruity adds entertainment: it’s funny to have Macbeth “spoil the feast”—a tin of hospital food—and to have Banquo “ride” for the hours before dinner in his wheelchair.

In the cast, O’Brien, Chung, and Babbs are best at the naturalized delivery of the lines, making us almost believe at times that we’re hearing normal speech, and Chung—as a drunken expectant mother (it’s the Sixties, y’know)—has some fun with the Porter’s speech. As Macbeth, Belcher is more clueless than conniving, more shrill and anxious than tragic. It seems that Ting, in asking his actors to play the modern setting, lets them fly quickly over lines packed with the play’s actual import—that Macbeth is in fact a tragic figure at war with himself, and not simply a soldier strung out in nightmare hospital.

Macbeth 1969 is earnest in its efforts to make modern warfare and its traumas relevant to Shakespeare’s play, and it partly succeeds, but it’s much less successful at making Shakespeare’s play meaningful in the context of the Vietnam conflict.

Macbeth 1969 A World Premiere Adaptation by Eric Ting The Long Wharf Theatre

January 18-February 12, 2012

The Hotel Unheimlich

It was my daughter’s idea.  She had heard of the show from a friend and so had some idea what to expect.  Her experience was therefore more extensive than mine, it seems.  I was a bit disappointed that I didn’t see all I heard about from her, but at the same time our divergent experiences simply underlined a wonderful aspect of the show: the experience you have of it is largely determined by your own volition.  I could have stuck with her, went where she went, followed the actors she followed, but then I’m not her and I wanted my wandering through the dreamlike, nightmarish world of Sleep No More to be mine. Sleep No More is theater as performance art, as installation, as dance and mime, as full immersion experience, as a trip into the collective uncanny.  Developed by a group called Punch Drunk (aptly enough), the show first had a run in Boston and true cognoscenti are quick to say they saw it there (New Yorkers don’t get everything first), but, from what I’ve heard, the Boston show was not as extensive, didn’t take up, as it does in New York, four stories of a warehouse in Chelsea, reconfigured as the McKittrick hotel, a kind of living movie set you never emerge from until the show is over (or until you choose to leave).  After four hours inside, I was ready to go, I suppose, but that’s not to say I would’ve left any time soon.  Like a child at closing time at the carnival, one feels there must be one more thrill, one more odd sensation, one more unexpected event still to come.

If you haven’t heard about it (or have), here are some facts you’re likely to hear: the audience is free to roam wherever they wish through the four floors but must wear the provided masks and maintain silence; these restrictions prevent audience intrusion into the spectacle—if a member of the cast wants you to interact, he or she will involve you—but they also create a side spectacle of roving, masked and silent watchers (or voyeurs, to make it sound as creepy as it sometimes feels) who are your doubles or comrades, and in their company one feels part of a collectivity less like a theater audience and more like a scavenger hunt or like “free time” on an unguided tour of the Twilight Zone.

About the show itself: it dramatizes, in somewhat free associative dumbshow, the story of Macbeth—which means there’s death and blood and satanic rites—combined with elements extracted from Alfred Hitchcock’s noirish version of Daphne du Maurier’s Gothic novel Rebecca, and other elements that, as best my daughter and I could piece it together, had to do with murder in a hotel and a stint in an insane asylum.  It would be easier to parse the action if, say, the different threads were self-contained on one floor or another, so that the audience could peek in or pass through, “story-surfing” amongst the floors.  But it doesn’t work that way.  Actors pass you on their way to or from a scene and you can choose to follow or not.  Maybe you’d rather keep looking at the fascinating set of an apothecary’s store, or a post office filled with hand-written messages, or a taxidermy shop, or the graveyard, or the grand ballroom where you may move amidst a moving grove.

I found it hard to fix on characters per se, to say nothing of performances.  It gets underway in the ball room where all the characters are present for a dance and then go their different ways.  Who you find yourself following might be due to whim or to an effort to stick with Macbeth, say, or, as I did, because you saw one woman drink drugged milk and wanted to see what would happen to her next.  If you’ve ever dreamed of not being bound by linearity, this is the show for you.  What you “learn” is largely dependent on what kind of sleuth you are, what kind of things you notice, what your imagination, once aroused, does to you.

If you’ve ever sat through a performance where you found yourself not too engaged by who was on stage and wondered what the other characters, off stage, were up to, it’s liberating, here, to know you can go wander in search of them.  Someone is up to something somewhere, so seek and ye shall find.  And whatever you find seems somehow intended for you, if only because you led yourself there.  That’s the dramatic element that I found most haunting and inspiring: the feeling of being implicated in what I saw because I stayed and watched it, or because I trailed someone to see what they were going to do.  The only comparable experience is a dream where you seem to be doing something for your own reasons and yet have no control over what happens.

The other aspect that stayed with me and wouldn’t let go is amazement at the design elements, the lighting, the smells, the sounds, the full sensory experience that creates a range of reactions—some rooms you just want to get out of, others you could imagine hanging out in if you were a member of the Addams family, others might feel, oddly, like a place you’ve been before and may find yourself in again—like returning to Manderley, or to the witches’ den—led by a shuddering sense of repetition compulsion.

When we attended, back in April, the show was slated to close in the first week of June.  Now it’s the end of July and the show is slated to close on Labor Day weekend.  I suppose it will close, but the longer the show lasts, the more people hear about it and want to see it, and those who have already been want to go again.  I have to admit I’m wondering if I can manage to work in another visit before the end.  Maybe I’ll see my earlier self wandering amongst the onlookers, a remnant of myself that never left, like Nell at the end of The Haunting of Hill House.

“Still it cried, ‘Sleep no more!’ to all the house.”