This is not a Penn & Teller magic show. Instead, the Emmy-award winning Teller — the silent partner in that world-renowned magic enterprise — has teamed with Posner (as in Helen Hayes Award-winning director Aaron Posner) to bring magic to a new production of Macbeth now playing at the Folger Theatre.
This is not the first time that Posner and Teller have worked together. In 1997 Teller worked some of his magic for a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Arden Theatre Company in Philadelphia. It was after that collaboration the two began to discuss Macbeth, a story that was a childhood favorite of Teller’s.
It’s fitting, really, that it is the normally closemouthed Teller laboring behind the scenes of this vision. The magic effects at the Folger do not march onto the stage demanding attention and wrestling scenes from fellow actors like some troupe of over-indulged Las Vegas divas. While hardly fading into the shadows — except for those times when things actually fade into the shadows — the work is as unassuming as Teller’s stage persona though no less intriguing for its stealth.
In other words, this isn’t all some great gimmicky road show. This is great Shakespeare as co-conceived and co-directed by two incredibly talented gentlemen with a firm grasp of how to work both the Bard and the boards. It’s a great, admittedly gory, telling of The Scottish Play (a pretty gory tale itself) that deserves all the attention it is getting.
Even if you managed to make it through school without ever having read or seen Macbeth, you most likely know the basic plot. Macbeth and his wife — she of the ”out, out damn spot ” fame — scheme, plot and murder their way to the top of the Scottish royal ladder. It’s a swift but ill-fated rise as both prove ultimately unable to fully bury the bodies of those they’ve killed to make their fortunes.
Ian Merrill Peakes is a mesmerizing Macbeth. In his hands the deadly monarch is at once ruthlessly brutal and achingly vulnerable. There is a tender masculinity at work here, with emotions moving across the actor’s face like clouds moving in for an unexpected summer storm. Peakes has achieved a difficult balance where the audience is not only able to believe he is capable of the ruthless deeds he commits, but the utter despair he has for having committed them.
He is well paired with Kate Eastwood Norris, with whom he shares a chemistry that has an almost palpable physical presence in the theater. Norris’s Lady Macbeth is unashamedly ambitious, overtly sexual and absolutely well-realized. Her descent into madness is a terrifying joy to watch.
Cody Nickell delivers his own notable performance as Macduff. The actor is a slow burn of emotion until the audience is able to witness his final confrontation with Macbeth. The scene is a stark blend of rage and horror. No matter how tempted you might be to look away do not. Screw your courage to the proverbial sticking place and pay it full witness. You will be unsettled but grateful at the end.
Eric Hissom, Cleo House Jr. and Andrew Zox are thoroughly entertaining as the three Weird Sisters. It is not surprising that the supernatural sisters benefit immensely from Teller’s illusions.Posner and Teller’s imagining of the oft-quoted cauldron scene is at turns gruesome and gorgeous. It is a perfect illustration of how the magic work on the stage falls into place with elegant precision. You will wonder how The Scottish Play has ever been done otherwise.
Posner and Teller’s Macbeth plays out on a stage whose set you might first be tempted to dismiss. A grim industrial landscape graced with a pair of elaborately decorated Albert Paley-like steel gates, its minimal nature borders on the anonymous. What’s remarkable about it, though, is the manner with which Daniel Conway’s scenic design works in deft concert with Thom Weaver’s lighting design and Karin Graybash’s sound design. With every shift in the lighting, with every aural stir, the character of the set seems to morph to embrace the new environment. It’s a credit to the integrity of the work being done by these designers.
There is much to be admired about this production of Macbeth. Most outstanding is the restraint exercised by Teller and Posner. What might have become a superficial spectacle guaranteed to sell tickets on the strength of Teller’s name alone is instead a thoughtful, deliberate and outstanding piece of Shakespeare.