Cincinnati Shakespeare Company’s production of Macbeth is not for the faint of heart. And that is wonderful. With abundant use of stage blood, unnerving sound design and gruesome props, Cincy Shakes’ goes all in.
Centered on the titular character, Macbeth explores prophecy, the supernatural and how far one will go to hold and maintain power. Macbeth, played captivatingly by Giles Davies, begins the play as a general in service to Duncan, the king of Scotland.
After a victorious battle, Macbeth and friend Banquo experience a ghostly encounter with three mysterious witches, who inform Macbeth that he is destined to be Scotland’s king, just as Banquo’s heirs are paradoxically destined for the same royal fate.
Armed with this prophecy, Macbeth recruits his ambitious wife, played by the unassailable Kelly Mengelkoch, to help him murder King Duncan so they can ascend to the throne. But instead of security in his royal position, Macbeth finds only suspicion and fear that as long as friend Banquo is alive, his position on the throne is threatened. Banquo, played by Justin McCombs, delivers some thrilling scenes that pile on the guilt, fear and paranoia sown throughout the production.
Though the stage combat — choreographed by Gina Cerimele-Mechley — was fantastically ferocious, the actors were a bit too careful with the fight choreography in the ensemble-based battles. But as the play progressed and the battle scenes shifted to one-on-one combat, the actors hit their stride and threw themselves into each fight with voracious viciousness.
A particularly emotional and enthralling fight scene doesn’t come until the end of the play as Macduff and Macbeth engage in what is quite literally a fateful struggle. The energy and ruthless passion that the commanding Grant Niezgodski throws into Macduff is so compelling that the sequence feels eerily realistic.
The infamous three witches were conceptually triumphant, though execution in sound design made them difficult to understand at times, which took away from the play’s plot. However, each part of the production — from the scenic and lighting design by Justen N. Locke to the sound design by Douglas J. Borntrager to the witches’ first mystical entrance — set the perfect, unsettling tone for Macbeth’s terrifying unraveling.
Outside of these successful elements, it feels as if Cincy Shakes is still mastering their new playground in their relatively new Over-the-Rhine space. Several sound queues as well as certain video projection elements in the production take the viewer completely out of an otherwise captivating experience. Superfluous and unpolished components like these distract from the action on stage — as well as the actual written text — and make it difficult for the audience to stay engaged.
Clad in flowing black fabric with long, spindly fingers and blank white masks, the witches jerked and twisted their eerie bodies in supernatural harmony with each other in a way that was completely enthralling. Movement coach Darnell Pierre Benjamin, who plays one of the witches, is due incredible credit for this effect — almost as much as fellow witches Courtney Lucien and Caitlin McWethy.
Outside of the wonderfully ethereal witches, the costuming, designed by Rainy Edwards, saw each separate group in their own “clan tartan” which, although anachronistic, makes the play feel delightfully Scottish. Not only does the use of tartan look fantastic, but it also serves as a clever way to assist the audience in character and allegiance identification. In a play that boasts a large casts of various characters — and that centers on deceit and loyalty — visual aids like this are a necessary element.
It can be rare to see a Shakespearean production performed in 17th-century period dress, most often due simply to the costuming costs. But this choice of setting was the perfect one; it allowed the brutality of Shakespeare’s Macbeth to unfold without reservation. Director Miranda McGee didn’t hold back in her approach to this production. A clear horror fan, McGee developed fantastically gory, and sometimes shockingly brutal, stage directions that force viewers to consider what they think humans are truly capable of.
Cincinnati Shakespeare Company’s production of Macbeth runs through May 4 at the Otto M. Budig Theater (1195 Elm St., OTR). More info/tickets: cincyshakes.com.