It’s July in Fairbanks, and that means it’s time for the annual Fairbanks Shakespeare Theatre (FST) outdoor production, a place where audiences see Shakespeare performed at its finest, where squirrels strut and fret across the stage and ravens provide the sound and fury.
This year FST is producing the light-hearted romp, “Macbeth,” the story of two crazy Scottish kids trying to make their relationship work while violently overthrowing a king. There is mysticism, murder(s) and enough blood (shipped in from England) to keep the ravens happy. “Macbeth” explores humanity’s darkest ambitions and analyzes the fears that guide our actions. But “Macbeth” isn’t all funny. To fans of the bard, the discussion of these heady topics is what makes this play such a delight to see performed.
Overall, this is a solid telling of the Scottish play. It is well acted and consistently entertaining. Where it falls short is that it really isn’t the play it claims to be. Director Rebecca George set her production in a post-apocalyptic time inspired by a “Mad Max” aesthetic that isn’t clearly expressed. Mannerisms, habits and social norms aren’t significantly altered by this destruction of society. While the impressive set (by set designer Adam Gillette) is occupied with worn elements and a wonderful rounded, metallic, entrance tunnel with a screeching gate, it doesn’t look so much different from a present-day junkyard. The marvelous costumes (by costume designer Barbara Casement) do reference “Mad Max,” but it isn’t enough to display George’s vision cleanly. There is an expectation that such an innovative concept should create novel interpretations upon the text or that the setting inspire unique perspectives on the motives for these characters.
This version of “Macbeth” could be staged with minimal props, monochromatic costuming on an empty stage, and not create a significantly different narrative to the one staged. The concept doesn’t add new information to the play and it leads one to ask, why choose this setting? George’s production does not provide a clear answer.
Despite this unanswered question, it is one of the better renditions of “Macbeth” I’ve seen. The Shakespeare nerds amongst us will cheer for the immediate timing of Macbeth’s entrance after Duncan (bd Rogers) says of the former Thane of Cawdor, “He was a gentleman on whom I built/An absolute trust” (Act I, Scene IV), and at Banquo’s (Andrew Cassel) anxiety for his son after Macbeth asks the leading question, “Goes Fleance with you?” (Act III, Scene I). George uses every inch of the sprawling, multi-tiered set to create an active production. Hopefully, fitbits survived the apocalypse because Tom Robenolt (Macbeth) surely got his steps in. His character and that of Shelley Virginia’s Lady Macbeth are very well performed. We Shakespeare nerds (we are worse than Monday morning quarterbacks) will debate the character choices and question the phrasing of the soliloquies, but the audience becomes invested in this story of the Macbeths and that is in large part due to the work of Robenolt and Virginia.
Cassel’s Banquo is another strong performance for the FST regular. He and Robenolt have great chemistry together, and Cassel can do the dead-eye stare to perfection. The usage of the rock band, Sour Goat’s Milk (Kate Billington, Xel Heidel, Freddy Gryder, also the Porter and Apparition No. 2, and Carey Seward) performing throughout the show sets the tone for this dark tale. Casement’s costumes are beautifully designed. Especially on the WeÏrd Sisters (Eugenia Merrifield, Mary Conlin and Diane “Bunny” Fleeks), the costuming allows the performers another component to create their characters. The WeÏrd Sisters are positively creepy. They hiss, bend and twitch while having a blast tempting Macbeth with news of his doomed destiny.
And the entire cast looks like they are having a blast with this play. This rendition is slightly overwhelmed by the weight of expectation but that is a common critique of any showing of “Macbeth.” For such a frequently performed play, it rarely holds together. What you get from FST is a nuanced production, with Sour Goat’s Milk serenading the audience beneath the midnight sun, leading to night-long debates and discussions about the nature of humanity. It doesn’t get better than that.
Fairbanks Shakespeare Theatre’s “Macbeth” plays at Jack Townshend Point on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets and more information can be found at www.fairbanksshakespeare.org.
Scott Wiser is a freelance writer who covers theater in the Fairbanks area.