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After a successful engagement at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in spring 2019, Mac Beth is having an encore run at the Hunter Theater Project from January 6 to February 22, 2020 with a slightly different cast.
Erica Schmidt directs a radical reinvention of Shakespeare's tragedy featuring seven young actresses
Streamlined into one whirlwind act and rechristened Mac Beth by director Erica Schmidt, this reimaginging of Shakespeare's tragedy is presented as a play within a play, as a cast of seven actresses portray modern-day schoolgirls reenacting the grisly saga in an abandoned lot for sport. Although the production is plenty gruesome (the witches' brew is spiced with used tampons), it's also touching and illuminating as we watch young women -- not hardened military men -- explore the corrosiveness of power and ruthless ambition.
Schmidt, a veteran Off-Broadway director known for helming new works (the cult musical Debbie Does Dallas) and fresh takes on classics (A Month in the Country starring her husband, Peter Dinklage) first staged an all-female Macbeth in 2015 at Juilliard. "I picked Macbeth based on an impulse to work with young women -- not with them pretending to be men, but right where they were at the moment," she explains. "Thinking about the witches made me wonder about girls and their faith in something magical. My daughter is seven. It starts out with unicorns and mermaids, then evolves, potentially, into other things."
Among the influences shaping Schmidt's vision for the piece, which ran at Seattle Repertory Theatre in 2018 with a different cast, is the chilling 2014 Slender Man stabbing, when two Wisconsin middle-schoolers, in the grip of a shared fantasy, lured a mutual friend into the woods, knifed her 19 times and left her for dead. "I'm interested in every person's capacity for doing ill," Schmidt says. "We have rules that we try to follow, but it's like a thin societal constraint that keeps us from more violent acts. And I feel like there's something happening culturally with technology where we're losing empathy. When you study genocide, people often speak about the first kill being really hard, and then after that it's just work. That's sort of what happens to Macbeth. We're accustomed to seeing large men swinging at each other with swords in this play, and I was wondering, how do we reacquaint ourselves with the real horror of that? What if we take beautiful young women who look like the picture of innocence but are just as capable as we all are of the worst that a human can do?"
The cast is a mix of stage neophytes and seasoned pros. Most shoulder multiple roles, including AnnaSophia Robb, 25, who has worked extensively in film (Bridge to Terabithia, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) and TV (The Carrie Diaries, The Act), but is making her theatrical debut with this production. "It's a little bit of a bold move!" she admits about starting her stage career with the Bard. "I just love Erica's energy. She's such a badass! She really knows the show and what she wants it to be, and has such a passion for it. As freaked out as I've been, it's been the best show to be a part of, coming into this world for the first time, because it's all women. I looked around our rehearsals and we had 15 women in the room!"
Robb particularly enjoys the very outset of the production, what the cast calls "the whirlpool," when the three witches (she is one) put away their cellphones and start pounding the ground and wailing. Their frenzy sets the tone for all that follows. "When the show starts, we all sort of have to jump in," she says. "If we can get that energy at the front, that's my favorite part. Because then I know the show will just keep going from that momentum."
She also loves that adolescents, who constitute a large part of her fan base, seem to be connecting with this unconventional production. "It's fun just to hear the audience reactions," she says. "We've had a lot of students come and you look out and see all these young people super-invested. There was this one guy who didn't seem to know what the tampons were -- we saw his friend whispering in his ear. It was really funny."
TDF MEMBERS: At press time, discount tickets were available for Mac Beth. Go here to browse our current offers.
Sandy MacDonald is a freelance theatre critic. Follow her at @sandymacdonald. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: The cast of Mac Beth. Photos by Carol Rosegg.