By Carolyn Hayes
People conform to certain accepted behaviors, they appear outwardly normal, but there’s no telling what diabolical contradictions are bubbling in them under the surface. This is a key component of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” which examines how one man’s private ambitions are spurred by the promise of power, and how he is further transformed by its achievement. The Hilberry Theatre’s season-opening production can be described in roughly similar terms. Although director Paul Barnes’s traditional approach to the baleful “Scottish Play” delivers the expected gruesome villainy, it does so while slyly unpacking the script’s rich duplicity, finding a natural impetus for barbaric behavior that we might not like to accept as comprehensible.
As the production begins, the assembled company names the play and setting, then executes a swift roll call to familiarize the viewer with titles and basic relationships – a useful tool, especially given that some actors are double and triple cast. The ensemble then plunges headlong into the tyrannical tale of Macbeth (Miles Boucher), an upward-striving titled warrior who receives a prophesy by three witches (Sarah Hawkins Moan, Megan Barbour, and Danielle Cochrane) that he will rise through the ranks and become Scotland’s king. His path is strewn with obstacles, including the seated king, the wise yet benevolently humble Duncan (Brandy Joe Plambeck), but Macbeth, together with his compelling wife (Annie Keris), seizes a dastardly opportunity for assassination in order to seal his foretold destiny. Yet the price of obtaining power pales in comparison to the mounting costs of keeping it, as the new king’s bloodied reign alienates him from former allies, including onetime confidante Banquo (Topher Payne) and the apprehensive Macduff (Brent Griffith).
Shakespeare’s language here revels in contradiction, and the design follows suit, digging into diametric oppositions. In contrast to the sophistication one might expect of regal proceedings, the earthy scenic design by Max Amitin embeds primitive stone structures within engulfing forest, and the nearness of the elements is reinforced by costumer Donna Buckley’s found-warmth collage of heavy textiles and skins. Lighting by Samuel G. Byers establishes neutral and natural, only to cut through in extreme schemes that expose the characters’ duplicitous psyches.
Intriguingly, although the text seeks to characterize good acts as “natural” and evil works as “unnatural,” the present production casts its grisly deeds in an animalistic light, subtly suggesting that the base response to kill or be killed is not so far removed from human nature as one might hope. (To this end, fight choreographers Alec Barbour and David Sterritt excel at acts of increasing brutality, especially when the undergraduate and child performers jump in with bone-rattling commitment.)
Barnes’s pacing is similarly binary – here spurred to velocity by the insistent drums of sound designer Heather DeFauw, there languishing in the pause between breaths as Moan, Barbour and Cochrane’s wilding witches take their time communing. Notably, in a show this long on ominous malevolence and short on levity, Michael Fisher provides an especially vital moment of respite in his lethargic, mischievous turn as the ambling porter.
The performances, too, look for the natural drivers and reactions to the play’s heinous acts; yet even here, the lead performances are characterized by antithesis. Boucher plays moment-to-moment as a defensive-skewing Macbeth, taking threats as they come and meeting each discovery with the same wide-eyed inundation.
Conversely, as the resolute Lady Macbeth, Keris’ premeditation is spellbinding: Her thoughts dart ever ahead, even as she initially reels with fear at the ease of her deadly cunning. Through a swift cascade into cold, irreversible conviction, every furtive motive clearly telegraphed to the viewer, hers is the most revealing and gripping arc of the production.
Admittedly, couching the foul play of “Macbeth” so carefully within the framework of fallible humanity does leave this notoriously wicked show somewhat wanting for a seat of pure, unfiltered malice. However, the work of Barnes and company is noteworthy for its streamlined playing of counterpoints, stringing the viewer smoothly through the polar extremes of its dark and devious tale. What’s more, by exploring the savagery inherent to humankind, this production attains its own brand of spine-tingling realism, fed by a ruthlessness that feels all too natural.
Hilberry Theatre, 4743 Cass Ave., Detroit. 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday through Oct. 12, plus 2 p.m. Wednesday, Sept, 25 & Saturday, Oct. 5. 2 hours, 25 minutes. $12-30. 313-577-2972. http://www.hillberry.com