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Corey Stoll               photos by Joan Marcus


                         By Ron Cohen

Virtuoso director John Doyle, as might be expected, takes a pretty free hand with Shakespeare’s oft-produced Macbeth to launch the new season at Classic Stage Company, where he’s artistic director. And he delivers a cogent and engrossing rendition, bolstered greatly by Corey Stoll in the title role, a gallant military man who, when he’s caught up in a toxic ambition, murders his way to the ancient throne of Scotland and then murders more to stay there.

There’s hardly any need at this point in time to elucidate on the ever-relevant resonance of this work, with its theme of power-bred corruption, but the production also scores in the compellingly moody, lean and dark theatricality of its storytelling.

Along with a busy schedule in film and television, Stoll has found time to take on major roles on stage at Shakespeare in the Park (most recently, Brutus in Julius Caesar and Iago in Othello), somewhat gaining him the mantle of a notable American interpreter of the Bard. His work here should only further burnish this reputation.

It’s often revelatory to hear Macbeth’s well-known speeches (“Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow”…”Is this a dagger which I see before me?” …”Macbeth does murder sleep”…) parsed in un-plummy Americanized cadences, as Stoll reveals the character’s inner life. It’s a broad canvas, from the measured elation he feels when he first hears the prophecy of his upward climb to the almost crazed, flip desperation as his situation falls apart, and the final despair.

Nadia Bowers, Corey Stoll

Doyle surrounds Stoll’s Macbeth with a tight and talented company of eight other actors. In the key role of Lady Macbeth, who urges her husband on to bloody deeds, Nadia Bowers is a magnetic figure. She exudes a contemporary resonance of female empowerment provocatively laced with a ritualistic call for evil to embody her as she pushes her husband onto his malevolent course.  Stoll and Bowers also happen to be man and wife in real life, and their work together vibrates with both an intellectual and a sexual chemistry.

Others in the company take on multiple roles, morphing from one character to another with little or no change in look, sometimes only slight adjustments of their voluminous capes or shawls. Ann Hould-Ward did the great and classic-looking, atmospheric costumes. And they all seem at one with Doyle’s trademark minimalistic set design, an open platform of dark roughhewn wood, rising at one end to an unadorned but still power-radiating throne. It’s all darkly bathed in Solomon Weisbard’s painterly lighting, a mood further underscored by Matt Stine’s sometimes eerie sound design, while Thomas Schall’s vigorous fight direction adds physical vigor.  

As with any Shakespeare production, it wouldn’t hurt to give yourself a little brush-up of characters and plot before attending, especially helpful here with Doyle’s very fluid concept and the sometimes-hurried exposition, especially at the start, that along with editing gets the production done in a fleeting 100 minutes or so with no intermission. 

Mary Beth Peil

How fluid are things? Broadway veteran Mary Beth Peil starts out as Duncan, the king who is Macbeth’s first victim, enriched with a sense of dignity and wisdom. But she also joins others in the cast reciting the incantations and prophecies of the play’s three witches. She then moves on to portray a variety of folks, sometimes simply mood-setting and sometimes more specific, like one of those tending to the sleep-walking Lady Macbeth.

Among other chief characters, Barzin Akhavan plays Macbeth’s final nemesis, Macduff, heartbreaking and chilling when he learns the fate of his wife and children; Erik Lochtefeld is a vibrant Banquo, another of Macbeth’s comrade in arms and then a victim, and Raffi Barsoumian makes a stalwart Malcolm, Duncan’s son.

N’Jameh Camara’s Lady Macduff captures the harrowing nature of the woman‘s death; Barbara Walsh brings equanimity to Ross, a nobleman who tends to look on things in a neutral fashion, and finally but hardly least, is Antonio Michael Woodard, who moves with versatility through a variety of younger folks, such as Duncan’s son Fleance and the brutally murdered tyke of Macduff.

As for those three witches, they never appear together as an actual trio, if at all. With their lines rearranged and given to a group of actors performing very much like a chorus, you might – to push a contemporary point -- see them as a segment of the populace ready to support and urge on a corrupt but charismatic leader. However the device lands, it’s a provocative notion.

But perhaps Doyle’s most violent revision is to have Macbeth personally – by his own hand, that is -- murder Lady Macduff and her kids rather than, as Shakespeare signified, some anonymous “murderers.” It’s a horrific and gut-grabbing scene, however, illustrating the depths of Macbeth’s depravity and provides a cue for the entire season of chills being whipped up for CSC. Macbeth will be followed by versions of Frankenstein and Dracula playing in repertoire, and the final entry will be Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins. Sometimes, Halloween never ends.

Review posted October 2019

Off-Broadway play

Playing at the Lynn F. Angelson Theater at Classic Stage Company

136 East 13th Street


Playing until December 15