To kick off its 25th anniversary season, Nashville Shakespeare Festival selects perhaps the Bard's most familiar tragedy for our wintry entertainment: Macbeth. Their new production of the compelling (and bloody) drama requires many hands on deck and significant resources, all in service of the vision of Matt Chiorini, a central figure in Nashville's recent theatrical past as an actor, director and artistic director of the progressive, now-defunct People's Branch Theatre.
Chiorini, who currently directs the theater program at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, N.Y., returned to town temporarily to helm the production. He has a distinct vision for the Scottish play, driven by atmospheric and thematic impulses that have long been simmering in his creative consciousness. There is plenty here to hold the audience's interest, though the overall success of the endeavor seems less certain.
Chiorini invents a spooky fantasy world that hints at Braveheart, gothic drama and dark contemporary thrillers. He incorporates many design elements to make it happen, from brooding sound effects and Celtic fiddles to Jonathan Hammel's stark, vapor-enshrouded set pieces and backdrops to Anne Willingham's dramatic lighting.
The opening scene offers an inkling of what lies ahead in Chiorini's reimagining, as three young members of Nashville Ballet's Second Company enact the Weird Sisters, clad in rebellious white, their lines whispered in breathy, aspirated tones that make somewhat of a mystery of the central message: War hero Macbeth's professional fortunes are in the ascent. Meanwhile, a striking solar eclipse of the moon watches o'er the proceedings from the Troutt Theater's back wall.
Billy Ditty's costume design adds immeasurably to the production's strong visual appeal, with muted plaids giving way to the principals' more confrontational fashion-statement leather — owing more to The Matrix than the First Folio — that kicks off Act 2. The musical underscoring changes here as well, if only temporarily, to an ambient industrial vibe.
The sensual early scene in which Macbeth and his Lady seal a deadly regicidal deal (and their own desperate fate) is the evening's best. Eric Pasto-Crosby and Shannon Hoppe play the scene down center, on their knees, and demonstrate why they've both been snagging choice roles with major companies lately.
As Music City's glamour stage couple of sorts, they bring a credible sense of ego and ambition to their characters' tawdry task: Carry out the king's murder, assume Scotland's throne, then hold all their enemies (and hordes of opposing soldiers) at bay. Hoppe and Pasto-Crosby are generally respectable purveyors of Shakespearean poetry, and the visually striking duo are physically well cast. But their earnest readings rarely blow us away, and at times, Pasto-Crosby clings to unchecked melodrama instead of finding a path to something deeper.
For sheer embrace of the language, Brian Webb Russell as the ill-fated King Duncan and Nashville newcomer Aaron Munoz as the earthy MacDuff deliver performances that would play well no matter what the show's stylistic packaging. Their efforts highlight the eventful script's familiar verbal achievements. Jon Royal as Banquo is less assured in this regard, his character less formed, his declamation less intelligible.
Yet a viewer can't help but wonder what might have been if Chiorini had pushed the contemporary multimedia approach even further. With this production, we're only one extra creative decision away from introducing video cameras and audience monitors into the fray. It's an idea that surely would have worked, especially during Lady Macbeth's long-awaited sleepwalking scene. ("Out, damned spot!") Instead, distracting blocking diminishes the power (and pleasure) of an eternally famous speech.
If there's a blanket criticism to be leveled here, it's that Chiorini's staging of the play's many notorious scenes isn't more verbally focused (and hence more coherent). Elegant stage pictures have their value, but Macbeth's viscera, superstitions, witchcraft and potentially confusing political complications serve us best when brought to the fore with clarity. That happens too little here, with substance often swallowed up by style.
That said, Chiorini at least proffers a style worth considering, and all the ado is not about nothing. Theatergoers seeking a more lucid and literal retelling may be disappointed, however, especially if they're not ultimately moved by the show's noteworthy technical aspects.