At the Folger, A Wickedly Good 'Macbeth'

"Is this a dagger which I see before me?": Ian Merrill Peakes is a magnetic MacBeth. (By T. Charles Erickson -- Folger Theatre)
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By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Let's just lay our cards on the table: Folger Theatre's new "Macbeth" is a blast. With several sleekly executed illusions, an actor of magnetic, action-figure bearing in the title role and a trio of witches so ghoulish they could've arrived from the set of "Pirates of the Caribbean," the production's creators have come up with the closest thing to a popcorn tragedy.

You might have heard that the practical magic of this "Macbeth" has been supplied by Teller, the silent, diminutive half of the irreverent magic act of Penn and Teller. It turns out that where Shakespeare is concerned, Teller is a true believer, and the tricks he's adapted for the play are integrated in a thoughtful, thoroughly reverent way.

The play's preoccupations with prophecies and apparitions make it absolutely fair game for a professional conjurer. And the attention that Teller and co-director Aaron Posner lavish on the text ensures that the conjuring tracks with the intent of Shakespeare's poetic imagination. Nowhere is this achieved more thrillingly than in Macbeth's "dagger of the mind" soliloquy, for which Teller and magic consultant Matthew Holtzclaw design a mirror trick that gives a beguiling concreteness to the subconscious of a butcher-in-training.

Around those illusions Posner constructs a "Macbeth" that never allows you to breathe easy for long. The Scottish soldiers brandish polished cutlasses that look as if they are made to inflict maximum damage. The wounds of Macbeth's victims spew sickeningly thick globs of blood. The percussive score by Kenny Wollesen -- all bells and screeching wheels -- feels less like accompaniment than audible needles to the nerves. And the "crack!" heard during one of the expertly choreographed fight scenes by Dale Anthony Girard sounds unsettlingly as if a bone actually were being broken.

Posner and Teller appear to have cracked something else: the code for telling this famous tragedy in compelling fashion. Although the story would seem to yield naturally to the stage, "Macbeth" often proves to be one of the toughest to get right. Perhaps it is simply that the march to comeuppance for Macbeth and his avaricious wife too easily succumbs to the outcome's grim inevitability. The colorless pool of supporting characters -- all those interchangeable nobles -- is another hindrance to our caring what happens to many of Macbeth's victims.

Some intelligent editing to allow for a cinematic cross-cutting of scenes has helped enhance the urgency of the plot. Even more smartly, however, the directors cast Ian Merrill Peakes as Macbeth and Kate Eastwood Norris as Lady Macbeth.

The effortlessly likable Peakes is a great choice for Macbeth; he comes across as an athletic, all-American sort, a guy who projects an ease with himself, and makes others feel utterly comfortable in the process. Who'd ever imagine such a decent chap would advance his career by killing his boss? Deftly, too, Peakes plants the powerful suggestion of Macbeth's remorse from the very outset, just as the couple's regicidal plan is being hatched. For the tragedy to work, it is critical that, by the time the psychically exhausted Macbeth delivers what amounts to his own eulogy -- when he is about to set out on his own "road to dusty death" -- we still harbor a vain hope for Macbeth's salvation.

That, Peakes conveys convincingly. It's a measure of his hold on us that even in Macbeth's final duel, with Cody Nickell's emotionally supple Macduff, Peakes can register Macbeth's disbelief that the most improbable prophecy is coming true -- and get a laugh with his reaction.

Norris's Lady Macbeth is the production's neurotic counterweight, a bundle of ambitious nerves so close to the edge that when she reads Macbeth's letter about his new titles, she positively quivers with anticipation. (When Norris asks the ether to "unsex" her, it's as if she's pleading for a tranquilizer.) Her fever for power is the ignition for his. This Macbeth is turned on by his wife's intensity, and while Teller and Posner make it clear that this couple have the hots for one another, both become even hotter for the throne.

All through the play, the actors leaven the drama with lovely moments of black comedy. The dinner haunted by Banquo's ghost (a terrifically sympathetic Paul Morella) is a case in point. Only Macbeth, of course, sees the ghost -- who is illuminated here by the fine lighting designer Thom Weaver, in macabre shades of green. (The handling of Morella's coming and going is another nice touch.) Lady Macbeth has the impossible task of keeping the festivities afloat as Macbeth lapses into shrieks of terror, and Norris's delivery of her great rejoinder gives the scene a sardonic jolt. "You have," she flatly tells her husband, "misplaced the mirth."

Daniel Conway's bilevel set, which has a staircase that winds around one of the stage's permanent pillars, creates its own sort of illusion, that of a space with more flexibility than the Folger is normally able to accommodate. Somehow, too, out of the witches' caldron perched on the set's higher level, objects rise in defiance of the laws of physics.

This is a production, after all, in which misdirection is entirely in order -- and a bit of scratching your head is an expression of how captivating an evening of crackling Shakespeare can be.

Macbeth, by William Shakespeare. Directed by Aaron Posner and Teller. Set, Daniel Conway; costumes, Devon Painter; sound, Karin Graybash; masks and effects, Frank Ippolito. With Scott Kerns, Evander Duck Jr., Eric Hissom, Cleo House Jr., Andrew Zox, Peter Vance, Dan Olmstead, Karen Peakes, Joe Isenberg, Ben Cook, John Kilkenny. About 2 hours 20 minutes. Through April 13 at Folger Theatre, 201 East Capitol St. SE. Call 202-544-7077 or visit

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