John Doyle, artistic director of the Classic Stage Company, is a purist. He doesn’t use sets (beyond simple platforms) or indicatory costumes (crowns are so obvious), and his ensemble members (though not his leads) play many roles, without regard to gender or race. There’s something a little salty about using the poor-theater aesthetic in a comfortably budgeted house with a bottom ticket price of 82 bucks, but Doyle’s logic is that without ornamentation, texts can shine. Audiences will listen more closely, triggering our powers of imagination. That’s the theory, anyway, one that worked in his spare Broadway stagings of The Color Purple and Sweeney Todd.
In the latest Doyle—Macbeth, starring Corey Stoll—the trouble lies not in the audience’s listening, but in the show’s. The storytelling is a mess, and Doyle often asks his company to operate at deliberate loggerheads with the text. Audiences are, by now, comfortable doing the occasional logical leap at Shakespeare: we’ve stopped freaking out every time a Hamlet pulls a gun and calls it a sword. Doyle, though, goes beyond the usual suspensions of disbelief; he’s allergic to useful illustration, and seems to delight in undermining his speakers. When the witches ask “When shall we three meet again,” the wyrd sisters actually number eight. When Lady Macbeth (Nadia Bowers), shouts out to unearthly spirits that they should “stop up the access and passage to remorse,” she grabs her crotch meaningfully. (Girls, it’s so important to take care of your passage to remorse.) Macbeth complains that he can’t sit down at a table—Banquo’s ghost has taken his seat—while Stoll is literally standing on the only chair onstage. Why? What does that deliberate perversity get you?
It gets you a company that looks and sounds adrift. In a short show—Shakespeare’s briefest tragedy cut even further to an hour and 40 minutes—the time drags by. The actors have few ways to reclaim energy in a world so relentlessly enervated and untethered. They can be loud, so there are some of those Intense Running Entrances too common in bad Shakespeare. And they can flap their blankets. Each actor has been issued a sofa throw in muted shades of green, to drape around Ann Hould-Ward’s drab non-costumes. Banquo (Erik Lochtefeld) wears his like a scarf, Lenny Kravitz–style. Mary Beth Peil plays doomed King Duncan by holding the fabric open like a cape, then cocoons herself in it for her other small roles. The amount of blanket business grows ridiculous. At one point Stoll refuses to join the battle till “Birnam Wood come to Dunsinane,” and he thrashes his tartan blankie around like a toddler having a tantrum. Macbeth as Linus: Something sulky this way comes.
Many of these performers have been strong elsewhere. Bowers was a wonderful Yelena in the Chekhov riff Life Sucks earlier this year. And three summers ago, Stoll’s slithery-guy-ness worked brilliantly for Ulysses in Troilus and Cressida—his Bob-in-Accounting aspect makes him good at playing the banality of bureaucratic evil. Here, though, he seems desperate for purchase, slipping from one big speech to another, never appearing like a thane, a husband, a killer, a king. He tries hard to make each word seem like a discovery, but he just sounds like an actor still in the rehearsal room. Doyle’s “concert staging” method does work with musicals (he directed a striking Carmen Jones just a year back), when melody adds its own richness. But in dramas, his gifts as a director don’t match his ideas. There are those who can work in this stripped-down aesthetic he loves so much, who only need some bodies and some blankets to create a world. You can make a bare wooden stage into an entire globe, Shakespeare said, precisely because language does so much. Yet if a production doesn’t cherish its own words—doesn’t believe Macbeth is an old soldier, say, or that a chair is a chair—then you wind up with nothing but sound. Life is a “tale told by an idiot…signifying nothing” a certain Scottish laird tells us, right before a big battle. Okay, Macbeth, you’re not wrong. But in a play, surely we can hope for more than that?
Across town, Zawe Ashton’s for all the women who thought they were Mad at Soho Rep is also talking about a mind and world in disarray, and also surrounds its mentally disintegrating hero with a coven of women-priestesses who know the future. Stylistically, it’s more indebted to Ntozake Shange (the title seems to be a deliberate homage to for colored girls…) or Adrienne Kennedy, but you can hear some Jacobean echoes here too, particularly in the way sleeplessness and womanhood come as twinned burdens.
Life seems under control for the up-and-coming Joy (Bisserat Tseggai). She sits in a swivel chair in her glass-walled American office cube (Daniel Soule did the set design), her voice piped to us via speaker, her perfect white business-dress unruffled and unstained. Outside is a messy blue room, an otherworldly observers’ hall full of seven women who tut and worry about her, like her mother Ruth (Stephanie Berry); the office cleaner Margaret (Sharon Hope), who also comes from her East African village; and a little girl (Blasina Olowe or Kat William, depending on the performance) who pounds on the glass, desperate for Joy’s attention. The women seem to know something Joy doesn’t. Director Whitney White treats them like a Greek chorus: They speak about Joy in the past tense, and though she experiences a terrifying event—a woman falls past her office window—the others hint that Joy herself is falling.
Being black, being ambitious, being alone, being beautiful—all of these weigh on Joy’s shoulders and oppress her spirit. Her white boss (Gibson Frazier) oozes in to promise a promotion alongside a backrub (“Women like you always smell like coconut”), and then time begins to accelerate. A pregnancy rises and subsides. Pressures from her family and her professional life drive Joy into hysteria, and the chorus only makes it worse, bursting in on her with stories of women “back home” who have been drowned for witchcraft or for independence. Are they the same thing?
I saw for all the women several days before Macbeth, and the distance (and comparison) wound up flattering the younger play. As I left the theater, Ashton’s nightmare-drama had seemed hazy and arrhythmic, its poetry rather clotted, its central figure pretty thin. But in memory it takes on a kind of retrospective force. According to an interview, Ashton—now in her thirties and starring on Broadway in Betrayal—wrote her poetic woman-on-the-verge choreopoem in a single day when she was 24. The youthfulness and speed of the project explains the way her imagery seems to rise too readily to hand—there’s a lot in there about the dry earth and raindrops and moon and the river, some of which is pure cliché. Yet it also explains why it leaves a lasting impression of vigor and promise. There have been a thousand dramas about women pressured out of sanity, and this rather derivative one is Ashton’s early effort. But there are treasures in the secondary characters who break into this central melodrama. Eleven years ago, Ashton set them down; they seem to have walked in from life itself. And you remember them, even as the other noisier aspects fall away.
Macbeth is at Classic Stage Company through December 15.
for all the women who thought they were Mad is at Soho Rep through November 24.