Here’s a Fast ‘Macbeth,’ With No Witches, and ‘For All the Women Who Thought They Were Mad’
The Daily Beast
October 27, 2019
The CSC’s ‘Macbeth’ moves at a brisker pace than usual for Shakespeare, and Zawe Ashton’s ‘For All the Women Who Thought They Were Mad’ focuses on racism, sexism, and madness.
Right now in New York, you can see three witches in a very untraditional take on Macbeth (Scotland, PA), and no witches at all in the Classic Stage Company production of the play itself, which opens Sunday night (to Dec. 15). This production is a 1 hour, 40 minute race through the text with no intermission, as well as no witches. The “double, double toil and trouble” you hear is spoken by the company.
On a pretty bare stage, bar some benches, a huge wooden throne, and a puzzlingly under-used gallery level, Corey Stoll plays Macbeth with a fluent grace and a droll, brisk power. Nadia Bowers is a fine Lady Macbeth too, approaching her own heinous scheming with—like her husband—one eye on making us smile, occasionally, at her heinousness.
As directed by John Doyle, the CSC’s artistic director, the actors run in and out of every corner of the theater and occasionally stand beside the audience on the upper bleachers to deliver their impassioned speeches and forecasts of doom. And honestly, you miss the witches—this Macbeth can feel like a blunt Shakespearean murder procedural without their ghostly presence.
Lighting designer Solomon Weisbard makes the play’s dusky illuminations another significant presence, while Barzin Akhavan is an impassioned Macduff, and N’Jameh Camara delivers one of the play’s truly blood-curdling howls when Macbeth comes to kill her and her child. Raffi Barsoumian is a stoic Malcolm, Antonio Michael Woodard a brave Young Macduff (and Fleance), and Mary Beth Peil—Dawson Creek’s Grams, who told the story of her amazing life to The Daily Beast last year—is a starkly inscrutable Duncan.
Their clothing (by Ann Hould-Ward) looks modern, apart from the shawls both the men and women wear, and also multi-task with. One character almost tripped over his—unsurprisingly, as the pace is relatively breakneck for Shakespeare. This Macbeth is an enjoyable but more a lean compendium of well-learned speeches than a fully realized, rich Shakespearean tragedy.
What the play lacks in density it makes up for in energy—which is just as well at the performance this critic attended, where the audience was packed with children, experiencing Shakespeare on stage maybe for the first time. They watched rapt and quiet—mostly. Behind me, there was much sucking of sweets, restless fidgeting, and more than one “Oh dadddd” from a child for whom the real tragedy was this was going on way too long.
‘For All the Women who Thought They Were Mad’
Zawe Ashton’s second play, directed by Whitney White (at Soho Rep to Nov. 17), is an experimental, non-linear play about Joy (the very good Bisserat Tseggai), a black woman whose name is in stark counterpoint to the many kinds of pain she is in.
The version of Joy we first meet seems to have a high-powered job in a corporate environment, and from there on what she goes through or doesn’t may be rooted in reality, or be imagined by herself or maybe others.
On stage she exists in a glass cube, which she cannot and will not exit from, and which seems to exist both in and outside of conventional time. Outside the cube is a group of women (Stephanie Berry as Joy’s mother, Ruth, Sharon Hope, Nicole Lewis, Blasina Olowe, Cherene Snow, Shay Yawn, and the young actor Kat Williams), looking at her, discussing her, worrying for her. Is she alive or dead? Are they from the African town her family is from originally?
We first see Joy just trying to get on with her office job inside the cube but being harassed by her boss (Gibson Frazier). We see her feeling ill, we see her distressed about seeing someone falling from the building she is in, we see her pregnant and possibly giving birth, we see her becoming depressed, we see her wanting to get on with her job, we see her wanting the comfort of the women from her ancestors’ town, and then we see her suicidal.
She finds support and understanding inside the cube from other characters, and yet she also goes more and more mad.
The play’s themes of the legacy of colonial pain, the experience of being an immigrant, of the pressures on black women, of racism, of mental illness and the use of medicines, of motherhood, and of having a career, thread in and out of focus. Ashton—who won rave reviews with her performance in Betrayal on Broadway—writes with passion, but the play also feels cluttered and confusing. Too much keeps getting in the way of us knowing Joy.