The Northwest and Southwest sides of DC are filled with theatre and art. From the Shakespeare Theatre Company and Woolly Mammoth to Arena Stage and Studio Theatre, one never needs to look too far to fill a Saturday night. However, if you venture a little farther, there are cultural gems that begin to pop up, offering an exciting and unique voice to artists of all kinds. There is The Corner Store South Carolina Avenue SE, a nonprofit arts center for up and coming actors and musicians to share their new work. There is the Atlas Performing Arts Center on H Street NE, home to six different Arts Partners that offer all kinds of outlets from theatre to dance and music.
And if you look a little farther, there is Theatre Prometheus, a new group in its second season. Though they may not yet have a permanent home, they aim bring a voice to female artists, and offer an outlet to areas all over the DC area – including their current home at the Anacostia Arts Center with their all female production of Macbeth.
Written by William Shakespeare and directed by Artistic Director Tracey Erbacher, the play follows Macbeth, Thane of Glamis and Cawdor (Angela Kay Pirko). After encountering three witches who predict his future as King of Scotland, we watch Macbeth make the tragic choices that both lead to his position of power. Beginning with the murder of King Duncan (Jean Miller), Macbeth quickly descends into madness with each decision that follows. Shakespeare’s piece forces us to consider the power of fate, and the role of free will in our lives. Do we make our own path? Or are we a slave to destiny? Erbacher brings these questions and more to the surface in her all female production.
Led by Lighting and Scenice Designers Eric McMorris and Yannick Godts, the artistic team took advantage of the small, intimate space of the black box in the Anacostia Arts Center. With seats on either side, they created an aisle for the actors to use as their play space. This is often a challenging set-up to take on. With audience members on both sides, it’s difficult for an actor to avoid showing too much of their back to one side.
Though this occasionally became an obstacle in Macbeth, Erbacher also found moments to effectively utilize the space in a creative fashion. For a play that is so much about an individual’s relationship with fate, the aisle added to that theme with the idea that there is no escape from the movement of destiny. A character has to walk from one side to the other – there are no shortcuts or places to hide. The choice to use continuous movement in this way provided a thought-provoking element that I wanted to see even more throughout the play.
The Lighting Design Team (McMorris and Godts) worked with Sound Designer/Composer Patrick A. Lachance to heighten the dramatic feel of the play. The music in particular added an exciting sense of tension that made me feel physically nervous to see what happened next. One particular example was the beginning of the second act. Erbacher had the three witches slowly sway onto the stage with their cauldron. As they took their time and maintained eye contact with the audience, the drum beats began, and the lights were at their brightest from intermission. Once they hit center stage, the drumbeats quickened and the lights dimmed. The sound increased in speed and volume, as the lights grew darker and darker until everything suddenly just shut off, leaving us in complete darkness and silence. The lights only brightened when the witches slowly raised their arms, demonstrating their power over the story. This was an immensely powerful moment, and thrilling for the eyes and ears.
The three witches themselves (Diane Samuelson, Bri Manente, and Lisa Hill-Corely) were utilized beautifully. Erbacher had at least one on stage the entire time, assuming different roles. Sometimes a witch played the role of a servant, such as Diane Samuelson who also played the Gentlewoman for Lady Macbeth. Other times a witch was simply a member of the crowd, like Briana Manente, who joined the rest of the men when Duncan led them in a toast to his son, Malcom (Hilary Kelly). Erbacher’s choice emphasized the inescapability of destiny, and how no matter what Macbeth did, he could not escape the witches’ prophecy.
When all on stage together, the three women moved in perfect harmony. When one moved, the others followed. They swayed together in time, and seemed as if they were one entity. Erbacher clearly rehearsed them well, and all three had a stage presence that added a brilliant sense of doom and tension to the play. Whenever one of the women came on stage, I found it impossible to take my eye off of her.
The ensemble as a whole successfully carried the audience from moment to moment in the tragic story. Each actor brought his/her own level of individuality and creativity to Shakespeare’s roles that have been around for centuries. My one wish was that the choice to use an all-female cast was fully embraced. The script discusses the conflict between strength and weakness, and forces us to question our definitions of those concepts. Especially with the suggestion that Lady Macbeth pushes her husband to murder Duncan in order to become King, Shakespeare challenges the idea of masculinity. Because of those themes, an all-female cast can turn the play on its head and bring something entirely new to the material. The cast certainly made strides towards that goal, but the ensemble often resembled women trying to play men, rather than showing the strength of femininity. I would have loved to see even more of that originality come to life, and I am sure that the company will bring this element out even more with future productions.
One actress who rose to the challenge was Melissa Marie Hmelnicky as Macduff. She played the range in emotions wonderfully; from the moment she found her family had been murdered to the climactic point where her goal for revenge finally meets its reward. Rather than trying to portray masculinity, she played the character as it was. We saw the sensitivity of her femininity, but also the obvious strength that came with it.
Angela Kay Pirko and Renea Brown did a fantastic job as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. They played off each other beautifully, and played opposites at every point. When Macbeth entered the stage with Duncan’s blood on his hands, Pirko sunk to the floor with grief and fear. Immediately at this turn to weakness, Brown rose with power, and lifted her husband to his feet. Brown’s strength acted as a beautiful contrast to Pirko’s very convincing madness, which made the sudden switch in sanity at the moment that Lady Macbeth could no longer repress her fear and guilt even more impressive.
Full of creativity and energy, Theatre Prometheus is a group you do not want to miss! Get your tickets to All Lady Macbeth before it’s too late, and keep a look out for their upcoming productions.
Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, and one 10-minute intermission.