Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Usually, when a production's style and concept totally overwhelm the original play, it's nothing but trouble.
Unexpectedly, here, it's nothing but wonderful.
I will say that it seemed to me the people who enjoyed Trash Macbeth the very most, on the opening night of its world premiere, were the older critics in the audience. But everyone else seemed to like it quite a lot too.
Our senior reviewers had obviously seen plain old Macbeth perhaps once a year, for the last 30 years. So that's a lot of Macbeth. And for them Trash Macbeth must have been like sweet revenge: I watched as they giggled like schoolboys, amidst the carnage.
Here, Shakespeare's famed story of ambition and murder and very slippery prophecy explodes in great, wretched chaos, with overlapping monologs and unexpected costumes and settings and propsand regular, delightful interludes with Emily Post, the 1950s expert on etiquette and entertaining. (Ellie Schwetye is the domestic diva, full of breezy but astonishing pronouncements on dinner parties for two dozen guests, and such.) It's an eye-popping, riotous mix that also reimagines Macbeth's famous witches as TV housewives, and the famous "cauldron scene" (with "eye of newt and tongue of frog") as a spritely 1950s cooking show.
I did cringe beforehand, when I was given some lines (of King Duncan's dialog) to read during the play, but the whole audience recites them together like a church service, and it's actually fast and easy. And they gave me wine!
"But why," you ask, "Emily Post?" And what are Donna Reed, Barbara Billingsley, and Harriet Nelson all doing up there throwing a baby's finger into a boiling potion?
Well I'll tell you: there is, throughout, a steady, subtle drumbeat of domineering consumerism built into this show, brilliantly directed by ERA artistic director Lucy Cashion. And gradually we realize the characters ("organization men," in formal wear carrying long black umbrellas, and their wives, in dainty '50s skirts) are regularly split asunder from their own humanity by subtly dictatorial media messages.
Here, all that mass media (often delivered by the play's three witches) deadens the human conscience in pursuit of a perfect, conformist Levittown lifestyle. And that deadening, in turn, seems to open the door to the lowest forms of barbarism. It seeps in through in all the formal Emily Post behavioral edicts, and the very cute (chanted) "TV commercials" like the one for Dial soap ("with hexachlorophene!") which promises to make women more beautiful; and another one that tells us how a gentle formulation of Lysol, used as "feminine hygiene," can even save your marriage.
Yes, I said Lysol.
In this production, a sing-song consumerism promises exemption from the human guilt. In an Emily Post world, it seems murder may be excused on the suburban scale of reckoning, which has more to do with how white your wash can be than any visceral code of ethics. And it's all handled with such stylish insight into our collective subconscious that the show itself never becomes didactic.
After all the fun mid-century modern references, things turn dark with the murder of King Duncanas when the live be-bop jazz (that starts out prom-like) turns ghastly. In sight and sound, it's all far more immersive than any of the other Macbeths I've seen.
And when the king is killed, Macbeth (the incomparably boyish Mitch Eagles) comes back on, not with bloody hands, but huge wads of shredded magazinesas if all the innards of a great man's life were merely stacks of press clippings, now (in death) the gibberish of confetti. In some ways, he's the Macbeth we've always waited for: genuinely lost in the rush of tragic inevitabilities.
Then there's Lady Macbeth, a largely presentational, almost hypnotized Rachel Tibbetts, in this primly primal setting. She wears a dress whose upper section is made entirely of bright red, white, and blue Brillo wrappers, for steel wool soap padswhich is great if you're familiar with the usual steely resolve of the typical Lady Macbeth. Maggie Conroy is very fine as a doomed Lady Macduff. Carl Overly, Jr. is excellent as her husband, and Nic Tayborn effortlessly navigates through a variety of other roles.
It helps if you've read the famous original work, or seen it fairly recently: so when two or three characters are all reciting their monologs of grief and dread and guilt all at the same time, you don't get totally lost. But it's also a lot more powerful because these self-grieving monologs are united in one mad chant of horror, a song from the lake of fire.
Trash Macbeth is an outstanding re-imagining of an important part of our literary legacy, and our modern American birthright as well. It also helps explain the counter-culture revolution that would come afterward, in the 1960s, in which, through a process of hippy and anti-war demonstrations, would come a reclamationa re-humanizationwhere a younger generation (of our now-senior theater critics) would take to the streets and stop the cycle of institutionalized killing dead in its tracks.
ERA Theatre's Trash Macbeth, part of Shakespeare Festival St. Louis' "Shake 38," through May 7th, 2016, at the Chapel on Alexander Drive, immediately south of Wydown Blvd., off Skinker Blvd. For more information visit www.eratheatre.org.
Director: Lucy Cashion