All eyes are fixed on an anguished Lady Macbeth slowly crossing the Folger Theater stage in her infamous nightmare scene when an eerie sight occurs. Seconds after she utters “out damned spot,” splotches of bright red blood appear on the white nightgown of actress Kate Eastwood Norris, until the character is nearly drenched in the incriminating fluid. It’s one of many deliciously creepy tricks conjured by the magician Teller, the silent half of Penn & Teller, in this effusively imaginative rendering of the Scottish play, co-directed with Aaron Posner.
The polished production arrives at the Folger following a five-week SRO run at Red Bank, N.J.’s Two River Theater Company, which jointly produced the staging. The Folger’s six-week stint was essentially sold out before opening night — a modern first for the vintage Elizabethan theater.
Posner, Two River’s a.d. and frequent visiting director at the Folger, has collaborated with longtime chum Teller to stage the play as a briskly paced action-horror thriller. Macho guys bound around the stage and up the aisle in spirited displays of revelry. And woe to the weary traveler who encounters this grizzly trio of witches, strapping fellows clearly visiting from the deep below.
By the time Lady Macbeth does her tortured sleepwalk, the audience has had an eyeful of Teller’s magic. It has watched Macbeth’s dagger “float” in mid-air and drip with blood, seen assorted characters suddenly vanish and reappear, and witnessed a most grisly murder of Banquo. It has also observed a wild interpretation of act two’s caldron scene, where the spirited incantations of the weird sisters induce grotesque talking heads from the vile soup to loud accompaniment.
But this “Macbeth” is no mere magic show. It’s a thoroughly credible and accessible production that pays equal heed to the drama’s more subtle themes while reveling in the garishness of the Bard’s bloodiest play. Posner and Teller have taken pains to insert the illusions sparingly, so they embellish rather than cheapen the text.
They also obtain strong performances from the principal characters, especially Ian Merrill Peakes as a morally conflicted Macbeth. Peakes is every bit the noble soldier whose bloodthirsty ambitions are begrudgingly unleashed. His soliloquies, isolated by Thom Weaver’s lighting, reveal a brooding tyrant agonizing over the decisions before him. The character’s sensitivity combines most effectively with Teller’s magic in the pivotal dagger scene, where the audience gets to view the bloody knife seen by the tortured despot (thanks to a convenient mirror) and thus can empathize completely.
As his wife, Norris is a convincing study of rapaciousness and guilt whose frail moments are also staged with sensitivity. Other standouts include the always reliable Paul Morella as Banquo, both in life and ghoulish death.
Infused with energy from start to finish, effectively presented on Daniel Conway’s stark bi-level set and accompanied by Kenny Wollesen’s eerie, percussion-filled music, this “Macbeth” is likely to see a life beyond the tiny stages of Two River and Folger Theaters. It certainly deserves to.