The puppets are lovely and the painted perspective backdrops are luscious, but the first space is all wrong for the premiere of “Marionette Macbeth.” A collaboration of Chicago Shakespeare and Milanese puppeteers Compagnia Marionettistica Carlo Colla e Figli, this show provides lots of pretty pictures but puts the audience at a startling physical remove, presenting a proscenium show with three-foot figures in a theater designed for a thrust. When was the last time a puppet show demanded opera glasses?
This isn’t any old puppet show, of course. This is the full-on Bard — no skimping on the puppets, who can form a convincing regiment. Narratively, it’s just slightly watered down by adaptors Eugenio Monti Colla, who directed the life-like marionettes (or, rather, their handlers), and Kate Buckley, who supervised the human actors, who sit invisibly in front of the stage and speak the text. Following its preem at Chicago Shakes, the show will move to the more intimate New Victory in New York for a brief run.
The Colla family has been crafting marionette performances for centuries, and there’s something very appealing about experiencing a show that feels like it has emerged from a time warp. The elaborate perspective paintings that emerge with each new scene have an extremely 19th century look. And the performance style that the puppetry imitates matches that same time frame, with an emphasis on proclamation and gesture over psychology.
That makes “Marionette Macbeth” as old-fashioned a Shakespeare production as one is likely to see in this lifetime.
The performers speak with notable clarity but a purposeful absence of interpretative personality. It’s almost as if this show were told in the third person, like a gentle if sophisticated bedtime story. Jim Mezon, as Macbeth, sounds particularly generic, and Buckley doesn’t ever allow the playing style to justify the melodramatic urgencies of Fabio Vacchi’s music. The scenes feel flat.
Still, if one squints at the detail, there are amusements aplenty, particularly when Birnam Wood really does come to Dunsinane Hill. From a distance, “Marionette Macbeth” remains steadfastly more interesting than it is involving.