Signifying … Everything: “MacBeth in Rhythm”

In the last two years, I’ve experienced at least five productions of the Scottish play.  Obviously, not to learn the story — it’s so deep in our culture that we know it even if we don’t know we do — but to see what new ways we can find to explore it, and to share what we find.

Until now, Caitlin Hart’s taut, spare re-imagining for The Vagrancy last fall [see my review, “Something Wicked…,” below] has stood as easily the most exciting and artistically powerful.  Among its many strengths is Hart’s reshaping of MacBeth as a physical story, making movement equal to the famous words. Her witches, for example, writhe through the world almost silently as they alter it.

Well, now Hart has a compeer — Hannah Chodos, whose small, unnamed ensemble is at The Shakespeare Center this weekend, sharing the fruits of their four-month exploration.  Chodos and her six actors began by looking at the 410-year-old text as music, focusing on its ebbs and flows — how Shakespeare’s finely crafted rhythms carry us through the highs and lows, swifts and slows of his turbulent, emotional tale.

Emmie Nagata, Ben Weaver, Lindsey Moore Ford, Danielle O’Terry (photo: Rob Strong)

(For example, most characters speak in iambic pentameter, five beats to the line, the default mode of Shakespeare and most English-language poets.  But the witches talk tetrameter — four beats to the line — an older rhythm, common in the Middle Ages, that sounds abrupt and choppy amid five-beat rhythms .  And the Porter, whose rant at the castle gate stops all the action at a crucial moment, speaks in prose, which utterly breaks up the rhythms.)

As a result of their work, Chodos’ witches move — in close rhythms, often punctuated by their wooden staffs — far more than they speak. Nearly all the words they do utter are sung, in languages few will recognize.  This makes them, and their story, unspeakably ominous, mysterious — and yet, somehow, uncannily familiar.

The other actors also do far more dance-like moving than speaking, creating dramatically lit and shadowed moments like film noir or Noh drama.  We hear surprisingly few of the play’s speeches:  But we don’t need them, for the moving dance-drama eloquently tells us (or reminds us of) each successive part of the tale.  This version also ends suddenly, at a perfect moment, as the main arc is completed.

Of course, such intense work requires incredible skills — and focus — from the tiny ensemble.  They deliver, following one another’s every move and breath with predator-like attention, coordinating and adjusting with flawless speed.  And always in rhythm.

The rhythm’s bass-line is supplied mainly by using the stage as  a drum, played on by wooden staffs or the actor’s feet.  Against this background the actors, like jazz musicians, partially improvise their movements and the rhythm of their verbal lines.  (The singing, which involves close choral harmonies, is more fixed; yet it sounds as if it’s growing organically.)

Each ensemble member accomplishes varied, stunning work. Danielle O’Terry, a Hecate-like witch, transforms (under a sheet on a table) into the drunken Porter, drawing more laughter from the role than anyone ever has.  Ben Weaver’s MacBeth rushes confidently into a world where he gets more and more entrapped, terrified by what he discovers in it — and in himself.  When, early on, Emmie Nagata’s witch turns into Lady MacBeth, she is tortured and twisted by another witch’s touch while her husband reads aloud about his prophesied kingship; as the temptation distorts and damages her, we feel in our bones where her road must go.  James Cowan, Lindsey Moore Ford, and Sam Breen likewise sing, speak, and shift fluidly from role to role.   And all six manage the minimal scene-shifting, making its noises part of the ongoing soundscape.

Supporting the actors are some excellent technical artists.  Bosco Flanagan’s light design participates forcefully, throwing our vision where it belongs and shadowing rest of the world in omens, without ever drawing attention to itself.  Amanda Wing Yee Lee’s costumes are wonders of expressive simplicity, allowing movement and adding meaning.  I smiled when the witches appeared in their black-skirted leotards; when the men arrived in longer black skirts (subtly echoing the kirtles of ancent Scots), I laughed aloud.

The striking sound design developed, Chodos says, collaboratively.
It arose in rehearsals, from the rhythms the group found in the text, from East European folk songs she encountered in her training with Poland’s Song of the Goat troupe in Wroclaw, and even from the grunts and sighs that punctuated her actors’ movement exercises.

Chodos’ compression of Shakespeare’s text is the most daring I’ve seen (even beyond Denise Devin’s hour-long version for Zombie Joe’s, just two years ago this week).  But it works — because the constant flow of movement, and the chanting and singing, have all grown from the rhythms in the language and the shape of the story.

MacBeth is an old, dark tale; MacBeth in Rhythm is a surprisingly fresh, startlingly beautiful telling of it.  Anyone who loves the Bard — or who cares at all about expanding the ways we tell stories onstage — should make a point of seeing it.  It’s only at The Shakespeare Center this weekend, so hurry.
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MacBeth in Rhythm, by William Shakespeare, adapted by the company, directed by Hannah Chodos.
Presented at The Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles, 1238 W. First St., LA 90026.

Friday (May 5th) at 8:00,
Saturday (May 6th) at 2:00 and 8:00.

Tickets:  <www.shakespearecenter.org>

Note:  MacBeth in Rhythm is also a testament to the need for the kind of resources that artists in many other countries enjoy — mainly space and time, more than money.  A two-month residency Highland Park’s PAM, and the current residency at The Shakespeare Center (as part of its “Year of MacBeth“), enabled the group to grow their work from a few scenes to an entire play, without having to pay rent.