The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s new “Macbeth” makes its modern military charge right off the bat. Soldiers storm the Harman Hall stage, rifles popping. Out of the mayhem emerge three “witches,” a woman and two men: American-sounding covert operatives spreading unrest and looking for a puppet to be their next tin-pot dictator.
Director Liesl Tommy’s action-packed production is a tale of Africa suffering at the hands of Western interventionists. It is never more alive than during its battles; this show is notably fluent in the vocabulary of African violence. Child soldiers? Yes — that’s who Macbeth recruits to assassinate his erstwhile sidekick Banquo and Banquo’s son. Necklacing? Yes — a tire is tossed over the head of a victim and doused with gasoline as she’s wrestled offstage.
Even so, as “Macbeth” productions go, this is not unusually violent or especially bloody. Nor is it particularly engaging, emotionally. The CIA-like witches have a lot of sway here, and Hecate — their boss, not typically the most memorable character in the play — is the ultimate puppet master, in a torn-from-the-headlines twist far too juicy to be spoiled here. The operatives even have a “Men in Black” quality, at one point donning sunglasses and flashing something like a neuralyzer at bystanders as they stride away from a scene — though it’s probably just a cellphone. They routinely snap photos of carnage with their phones.
What all this means is that Shakespeare’s thread of individual tragedy takes a back seat to political melodrama. Tommy, who was raised in South Africa and who was nominated for a Tony last year for her Broadway staging of “Eclipsed” with Lupita Nyong’o, torques the play toward African strife but never fully gets her leading characters there. “Macbeth” is a play of second thoughts, the conscience that increasingly dogs Macbeth and his equally ambitious wife. But you don’t really get much of a bead on these famously conflicted personalities.
Nikkole Salter has a slightly better time of it as a Lady Macbeth who first appears in a Harvard T-shirt, reclining in a chair and looking lost. The opportunity for power animates her, though Salter, who was in Tommy’s 2009 “Eclipsed” at Woolly Mammoth, hardly throws herself into overdrive as Lady Macbeth goads the couple toward their first murder. She preens contentedly in a magnificent red dress during a coronation scene that features a luxury sedan for the new ruling couple, and she cradles a candle during the sleepwalking scene. (Childlessness seems to plague her.)
Still, she’s elusive, not frighteningly ruthless or erotically charged, even during abrupt conjugal clinches with Jesse J. Perez’s Macbeth. Salter’s human-scaled Lady Macbeth never quite finds a commanding, revealing moment.
Neither does Perez’s earnest Macbeth, whose soliloquies are often spotlighted as action freezes around him. Perez is most assertive with Macbeth’s pride, symbolized by the upward twisting thrust of Macbeth’s trademark power salute. But the play’s horror lies in Macbeth’s recognition of where he is as one murder leads to another: “I am in blood stepped in so far,” he says, “that should I wade no more returning were as tedious as going over.”
So what kind of man is this unexpected murderer? We don’t get early clues, and as the plot thickens, Perez oddly turns to wisecracks. Peculiar comedy creeps into the banquet scene with the ghost of Macbeth’s erstwhile sidekick Banquo (an appealing McKinley Belcher III), and the climactic battle features lines delivered like sarcastic movie quips. Does this Macbeth get his self-image from Hollywood?
The performance really only strikes a compelling tone visually. John Coyne’s set is like a gash in the earth with a seam of gold in the back wall and thin, vertical light tubes glowing with color and reconfiguring around the sloped stage. It’s a show of strong images: the pomp of the Macbeths’ coronation, the witches (David Bishins, Tim Getman and Naomi Jacobson) clandestinely monitoring action via electronic eavesdropping devices, soldiers and assassins executing vicious attacks with machetes.
Marcus Naylor emerges in the late stages as a soulful Macduff; Myra Lucretia Taylor is vivacious and funny in the play’s comic-relief role of the porter; and Petronia Paley and Sophia Ramos are reasoned as Duncan (here a queen, not a king) and the adviser, Ross. It’s a contemporary, watchable show, if long at 2 hours 50 minutes. But it’s a lesser “Macbeth” that so dramatically shrinks its king and queen to pawns.
Macbeth by William Shakespeare. Directed by Liesl Tommy. Costumes, Kathleen Geldard; lights, Colin K. Bills; sound design and original music, Broken Chord. With Corey Allen, Nicole King, Brett Johnson, Nilanjana Bose, Trinity Sky Deabreu, Horace V. Rogers, JaBen Early, Stephen Elrod, Scotland Newton, Kelsey Rainwater, Christopher Michael Richardson, Brayden Simpson and Anu Yadav. Through May 28 at Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW. Tickets $44-$118, subject to change. Call 202-547-1122 or visit shakespearetheatre.org.