By Bill Marx
As sure as “the crow/Makes wing to the rooky wood,” Mrs. Macbeth is going to fall tragically short when it comes to being an inspirational role model for marginalized females everywhere.
Macbeth in Stride Created and performed by Whitney White. Directed by Tyler Dobrowsky and Taibi Magar. Presented by the American Repertory Theater at the Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge, MA, though November 14.
Shakespeare has not fared all that well at artistic director Diane Paulus’s American Repertory Theater. A lackluster Othello arrived in 2019, courtesy of the Oregon Shakespeare Company, and that same year, after running for a decade at the now shuttered Oberon, The Donkey Show ended its long stumble run. Paulus and company have considerable amends to make for their abysmal disco-head-banging demolition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Something very wicked that way finally went. So it is a slight relief to report that this world premiere musical take on Macbeth, Macbeth in Stride, is some steps above The Donkey Show.
On the debit side, performer Whitney White’s light entertainment is more of an ersatz concert than a drama and it is built on a conceit that barely merits the time spent. White looks at Lady Macbeth from the perspective of “contemporary Black female power, femininity, and desire” and the figure is found, despite her welcome yearning for power and all that goes with it (more on that later), wanting. Does that surprise anyone? In her fine book This Is Shakespeare, Emma Smith makes a convincing case that Lady Macbeth is a spot-on example of the Bard’s misogyny, albeit a woman who speaks some magnificent poetry. So, as sure as “the crow/Makes wing to the rooky wood,” Mrs. Macbeth is going to fall tragically short when it comes to being an inspirational role model for marginalized females everywhere. Besides, as White quips, how many women in Shakespeare’s tragedies make it out alive? True, but, to be fair, the men bite the dust at a pretty high rate as well, though they are often given more memorable lines along the way.
A lot of the show serves up sass and attitude on the obstacles to female empowerment and other topics, including allusions to the lead’s yearning for stardom. White has lots of fun plying the diva trade, exchanging barbs with energetically gyrating witches (Phoenix Best, Reggie D. White, and Kira Sarai Helper) who are not scary or otherworldly in the least. They serve multiple down-to-earth (and confusing) roles — narrators, sidekicks, consciences, and chorus among them. Whose side are they on? (The trio and White also take up time explaining the turns in Macbeth‘s plot. Even the band members are enlisted at one point.) Some of this banter is amusing, but it doesn’t wear well, even over the course of a short (80-minute) show. Yes, ladies want, need, and deserve more power. But we have gotten to the point that vague demands for satisfaction aren’t enough. What is it that women want? White and the witches ask that (Freudian) question, but the responses are played mostly for laughs. That is not enough. How about a shout-out for systemic change at Harvard University? Or a demand that rising rates of poverty for women of color be turned around? And who gets to set the interrogatory agenda? The issue of overlooked voices is raised and then dropped.
Another challenge is ducked. White’s Lady Macbeth is frustrated that the script revolves around Macbeth (Charlie Thurston), who here sports washboard abs and an accordion, no doubt the instrument of choice for an Elizabethan killer. But her complaint doesn’t make much sense. Why couldn’t the performer rewrite the 400-year-old script, as have a number of playwrights, including Edward Bond, whose splendidly rejiggered Lear celebrates its 50th anniversary this year? Have the nerve to jettison commercial musical formulas — granted, that’s a risky move at the A.R.T. — and have Lady Macbeth wash out her “damned spot” and take charge. Complaining about the Bard’s backwardness doesn’t serve any purpose when you are free to retell the story your way.
Ironically, Macbeth in Stride‘s strongest moments are when White stops addressing the audience and delivers some of the character’s lines. A bit of drama is generated when the performer interacts with Macbeth, intriguing evidence that White might make an effectively feisty Lady Macbeth. The most outrageous murderess I have ever seen was Glenda Jackson in a 1988 production that co-starred the late great Christopher Plummer. When Jackson delivered the line “unsex me here” she grabbed at her breasts — it looked as if she was trying to rip them off. Nothing close to that kind of controversial bravura takes place here, but there’s potential in the lustful looks White’s Lady shoots at hubby. Unfortunately, the performer hits a (predictable) wall after the murder of Duncan. She is left to lament that the Bard stiffs Lady Macbeth with only a couple of scenes, which gives White the insoluble problem of coming up with a semi-uplifting ending.
It is time to mention the score, an assemblage of standard issue softish pop/rock tunes and power ballads. Gospel and R & B flit in and out, but there’s not enough spice to lift the music above the generic (these are the kind of bland tunes that send the toes of Boston’s theater critics a-tappin’). White has a strong voice and a commanding presence — it would be terrific to hear her Lady Macbeth belt out some well earned “gut bucket blues” and kick up some grit worthy of Bessie Smith. Instead, we are supplied mainstream stuff. The band is tight — too bad they aren’t invited to step out of bounds and let ‘er rip. (Jazz, anyone?) But Macbeth in Stride has been carefully calibrated to be middle-of-the-road fare, and Lady Macbeth, even if the Bard does her wrong, deserves much better.
This is the first of White’s five-part series, commissioned by A.R.T., which is charged with “excavating the women from Shakespeare’s canon.” Given that this is the rookie entry, I would like to offer some advice and counter one of White’s objections. The performer is right on about how maddeningly nebulous Shakespeare’s major characters can be — so much is left out. For example, it is not even clear if Lady Macbeth had any children. But those omissions offer creative possibilities as well as roadblocks. In her book, Smith argues that they represent the “gappiness” in Shakespeare’s dramas. This ambiguity partly explains his uncanny ability to speak across time: theater companies can fill — or dramatically reshape — these gaps to fit the sensibilities of the times. I am not saying to take it easy on the Bard — he will survive whatever you toss at him. But his lacunae offer artists an opportunity to infuse their imaginations and political concerns into Shakespeare’s characters, in this case to reinvent, not just excavate, the females in his canon.
Bill Marx is the Editor-in-Chief of the Arts Fuse. For just over four decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and the Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created the Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.