Macbeth Review--Barbara Gaines' Chilling Vision at Chicago Shakespeare Theater

William Shakespeare’s monumental tragedy, Macbeth, staged by Chicago Shakespeare Theater Artistic Director Barbara Gaines is a phenomenal accomplishment and an unforgettable evening of superb theater. One of Shakespeare’s most frequently staged plays, Barbara Gaines’ production brings the story into 2009 steeped in power politics and greed familiar to today’s audience. Urban warfare takes the place of medieval broadswords, and the electronic media controls our fates as witches once revealed truths and defined destinies for the audiences of Shakespeare’s time. The result intensifies the story of Macbeth and makes the all-too-clear contemporary similarities most disturbing.

As founder and artistic director of Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Barbara Gaines has directed more than 30 of William Shakespeare’s plays throughout her career. This production will mark the first of two original stagings of Macbeth by Gaines: the current Chicago Shakespeare production and a new production of Verdi’s Macbeth, featuring Thomas Hampson in the title role, for the 2010/11 season of Lyric Opera of Chicago. If the power of this production is any indication, the opera should be a sellout.

Special Effects including live video depict characters inner turmoil

Macbeth, one of Shakespeare’s most enduring and haunting plays, follows a nobleman’s astonishing transformation from hero to tyrannical murderer. Returning to Chicago Shakespeare’s Elizabethan thrust stage and leading the cast of 30 is Canadian classical actor Ben Carlson, previously seen at CST in his Joseph Jefferson Award-winning performance in the title role of Hamlet.

By shooting every scene at night with cold crisp lighting, an edgy look and mood is created

Struggling between honor and ambition, persuaded by the steady manipulation of his wife, and encouraged by a prophesied destiny, and recently returned from war, does Macbeth perhaps also suffer from Post-Traumatic Stess Disorder? Is he stuck in the world of killing and senseless death?

In a chilling mad scene,Lady Macbeth attempts to wash the blood from her hands

Carlson is joined by Karen Aldridge performing the role of Lady Macbeth, whose tortured soul is laid bare before us.  Aldridge transforms the power-mad woman into a tragic madwoman by the remarkable power of her demanding performance. Her ready ascent into cold-blooded murder as well as her descent into madness are both gripping and ghastly. In her famous sleepwalking scene, is Lady Macbeth exhibiting the symptoms of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder triggered by being covered in the blood of their first victims?

The Witches in one of their embodiments.

What about those witches?  Garbled, high-tech communications mark their message, but if the medium is the massage we need to pay attention as those witches morph into members of the press and strippers and--one of them at least, octogenarian Mike Nussbaum,  becomes a daft Porter who provides desperately needed comic relief while interacting with the audience on his way to answering the door.

The Porter provides the few minutes of comic relief in Macbeth

Barbara Gaines' vision is realized by collaborating with her immensely talented production team. For example,  Mark Bailey, Scenic and Costume Designer, creates a monochromatic production so the children’s party outfits, which sport the Macduff plaid, stand out in sharp contrast to the show's palette of black, white and grays.  Sound design and original music composed by Lindsay Jones incudes assault rifles with silencers, laser sights, and ricochet bullet bursts on the deck floor and, in another moment, ironically, sets the celebration party to the tune of "Witchcraft." To underscore the play's mounting terror, director Gaines sets every scene of the play at night. The cold, crisp lighting by  Phillip S. Rosenberg helps create the production’s sharp, edgy look. Fight choreography by Robin McFarquhar preserves dramatic pacing while using today's weaponry. Projection Designer Mike Tutaj provides numerous special effects including live video which opens a portal to the characters’ gripping inner turmoil. And, as if making up those witches (one a man!) wasn't enough, Wig and Makeup Designer Melissa Veal even produces all the blood for the production, varying the consistency for differing applications.  

First performed in 1606, Macbeth illuminated Shakespeareare's time.  Now, in 2009, Barbara Gaines brilliant adaptation illuminates ours.  I not only suggest you see it, you may need to see it twice to catch every nuance.

Approximate Running Time: 2 hours, 40 minutes (includes intermission)

Enrichment Programs:
Pre•Amble: half-hour introductory lectures on Macbeth presented by scholars will take place at 2:00 p.m. on select weekend dates (1/31, 2/1, 2/7, 2/8, 2/14, 2/15, 2/21, 2/22, 2/28, 3/1, 3/7, 3/8)..
Cast Call: an informal discussion with the actors in the Theater’s Pub on Friday, February 27, 2009 from 6:30 p.m. to 7:00 p.m., prior to the 7:30 p.m. curtain.
Post-show discussions follow each Wednesday 1:00 p.m. performance. Admission is free and reservations are not required for enrichment programs in conjunction with performances of Macbeth.

Performances for Visually and Hearing Impaired:
• The audio-described performance for patrons with visual impairments will be held on Thursday, March 5, 2009 at 7:30 p.m. Patrons should reserve a headset when purchasing tickets in advance. “Access Shakespeare” tickets are $27.
• The duo sign-interpreted performance for patrons with hearing impairments will be held on Friday, March 6 at 7:30 p.m. Patrons should request the specific seating area when purchasing tickets in advance. “Access Shakespeare” tickets are $35.

At Chicago Shakespeare Theater at Navy Pier until March 8.Tickets are $44-70 and can be purchased by calling Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Box Office at 312.595.5600 or by visiting the Theater’s website at

Photos by Liz Lauren courtesy of Chicago Shakespeare Theater


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