Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.

Shakespeare's Macbeth
Folger Theatre
Review by Susan Berlin | Season Schedule (updated)

Also see Susan's review of Gloria

Ian Merrill Peakes
Photo by Brittany Diliberto, Bee Two Sweet
The story of how researchers at Washington's Folger Shakespeare Library reconstituted a 17th-century reworking of William Shakespeare's Macbeth, including music written for the adaptation, is more interesting than the production of Shakespeare's Macbeth now onstage in the Folger's Elizabethan Theatre.

During Puritan rule from 1642-1660, theaters in England were closed, but when King Charles II took the throne, drama returned to popularity, featuring novelties such as women onstage, elaborate scenery, music and spectacle. When Sir William Davenant, head of one of two theater companies chartered by the king, adapted Shakespeare's grim story of murderous ambition to suit Restoration tastes, he kept the basics of the plot but made a few changes. Most notably, he made the virtuous Macduff and Lady Macduff almost as prominent as the corrupted Macbeth and Lady Macbeth—the Macduffs even encounter the three witches in the forest—and puffed up the roles of the witches by giving them musical interludes.

To complicate matters, director Robert Richmond has set the action in 17th-century Bedlam, the notorious London madhouse, in the manner of Marat/Sade. Tony Cisek's scenic design borders the main playing area with grim locked cells, with grimy muslin curtains serving to mark the end of scenes. Andrew F. Griffin's lighting design stays within the boundaries of the period, focusing on candelabras, lanterns, and unadorned overhead lights.

The manager of the asylum (Louis Butelli, who later plays Duncan) rousts inmates from their cells, giving them scraps of costumes (Mariah Anzaldo Hale designed the look of rags mixed with tartan sashes) and pushing them to perform. Six talented musicians of the Folger Consort provide live, period-appropriate accompaniment from an upstage balcony.

How, then, is the performance? Ian Merrill Peakes (Macbeth) and Kate Eastwood Norris (Lady Macbeth) played the roles in a traditional production at the Folger in 2008, but while they both do a fine job here, the atmosphere takes precedence over their characterizations. Chris Genebach is an impassioned Macduff and Karen Peakes a resolute Lady Macduff, both making the most of their enlarged roles, and Rachael Montgomery, Emily Noël, and Ethan Watermeier play the witches with both grotesque makeup and rapturous singing voices.

On the other hand, some of Richmond's inspirations seem excessive. After being butchered in silhouette behind the cushion, poor Duncan never gets a chance to rest in peace; the witches use his bloodied, dead body as a prop as they sing, reanimating it at one point. More peculiarly, after Banquo (strong, trusting Andhy Mendez) is murdered, the witches capture his young son Fleance (Owen Peakes) and enchant him into some sort of half-bird creature before he manages to run offstage to grow up and father a line of Scottish kings.

Folger Theatre
Shakespeare's Macbeth
September 4th - 23rd, 2018
Adapted by William Davenant
With music performed by Folger Consort
Duncan: Louis Butelli
Donalbain: John Floyd
Macduff: Chris Genebach
Seyton: Jeff Keogh
Banquo: Andhy Mendez
Witch: Rachael Montgomery
Witch: Emily Noël
Lady Macbeth: Kate Eastwood Norris
Macbeth: Ian Merrill Peakes
Lady Macduff: Karen Peakes
Fleance: Owen Peakes
Malcolm: Rafael Sebastian
Witch: Ethan Watermeier
Lennox: Jaysen Wright
Violin: Risa Browder
Viola: Nina Falk
Multi-Instrumentalist: Dan Meyers
Cello: John Moran
Violin: Leslie Nero
Harpsichord: Webb Wiggins
Directed by Robert Richmond
Music Director: Robert Eisenstein
Folger Shakespeare Library, Elizabethan Theatre
201 E. Capitol St., SE
Washington, DC
Ticket Information: 202-544-7077 or