The crimson color of the playbill you receive at Duke Energy Theatre isn't intended as a valentine. Take it as a warning, for the Shakespeare Carolina production of Macbeth, presented nightly through this Wednesday, is steeped in gore from the first moments when we learn of the future Scottish king's heroics on the battlefield against Norway. Hands and daggers are bloody, as they must always be in this tragedy of ruthless ambition and saturnine cunning. But there's plenty more spurting forth from king's victims as they are slaughtered and from the ghost of Banquo, climaxing with the bloody saturnalia of Macbeth's final rendezvous with the Witches.
Artistic director Chris O'Neill's vision of the play goes light on the modernization and heavy on the barbarism. Costume designs by Karin Eichler and Geri Boyette are mostly brewed from leather and ribbons of plaid. It's only when we encounter Lady M's doctor in a lab coat holding a clipboard that we can be sure we aren't in the Middle Ages.
Not that there aren't other hints along the way. When the Macbeths host their fateful banquet, the feast is laid out on a wooden table that is hardly fit for a Bronx tenement, and when we return after intermission, the Witches' cauldrons are two metal drums and a garbage can. Considering what his budget must have been, I'll say set designer Biff Edge has worked wonders. If you can spare a dime or a dollar, put it into the envelope that's enfolded in your program and help these po' folk out!
Given the sparsity of scenery and furniture to move around, O'Neill can be quite clumsy in his direction. Far too many scenes end in blackouts when simple exits and entrances will do, and the Duke Energy stage often seems uncomfortably cramped in the early going as warriors descried from a distance are absurdly nearby.
O'Neill does far better conceptually. He brings the Weird Sisters onstage on numerous occasions when they have no speaking parts but their work is clearly being done. They materialize in the home of Lady Macduff before she and her son are butchered. More memorably, they are coiled around the ghost of Banquo, abetted by some of the best moments in Cyd Knight's macabre lighting design.
Stealthy, sexy, and panther-like, the Weird Sisters are Iesha Hoffman, Kaddie Sharp and Vanessa Malanga. With her black hair streaked in vivid red -- and her eyes gleaming with red contact lenses? -- Hoffman is clearly their ringleader. The siblings are relatively campy juxtaposed with Hoffman's unrelenting intensity, but they deliver succulent Addams Family delights.
A subtler touch from O'Neill that I liked was having Macduff do the honors of narrating Macbeth's derring-do on the battlefield to King Duncan. By the end of the evening, I was convinced that any lines given to Christopher Donoghue would improve the production. In terms of sheer heroic physical presence, Donoghue's fiery portrayal of Macduff eclipses every Shakespearean performance I've seen since 1999 when Raymond Coulthard was Achilles in the Trevor Nunn version of Troilus and Cressida at the National Theatre in London. Crowning Donoghue's glory was his devastated reception of the news that his wife -- and all his "pretty ones" -- was slain.
In short, Donoghue should be the go-to actor for all such roles statewide and regionally, let alone in Charlotte. The fight choreography that he contributes to Macbeth only enhances his value.
Brian Willard has grown to be a competent actor over the years, but O'Neill is slightly overreaching in casting him as Macbeth. Intensity and focus are admirable, especially in the monologues, but the swagger of the warrior and the full arrogance of a king are in short supply. Yes, there's a new malevolence to Willard, and he has banished most of his former bad habits -- but an unbecoming peevish pursing of the lips still breaks through now and then. Sadly, Chris Freeman as Malcolm, Macbeth's successor to the throne, lacks even Willard's seasoning.
More satisfying is Kathleen Taylor as Lady Macbeth, especially when steeling her husband to Duncan's murder, though she should also be encouraged to move about with more wickedness and conceit. Nick Iammateo is a likeable Banquo as Macbeth's best bud, but he's truly spectacular as his ghost. Another welcome asset is Simon Donoghue, Christopher's dad, as King Duncan. The apple hasn't fallen far from this tree.
Only one blunder is unforgiveable. O'Neill axes the lines where Macduff reveals that he was not "one of woman born" and Macbeth spiritedly replies, "Lay on, Macduff!" Cutting rhetorical flourishes is fine, but lay off the plot points!