Review: We Happy Few’s ‘Macbeth’ at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop

Taking their seats in the black box theater, the audience is confronted with three immobile figures cloaked in chiaroscuro, as small, gold-leafed picture frames faintly reflect tiny boxes of light. A minimalist motif plays over a repeating chord progression for several minutes until the door shuts, and from every corner the overlapping rhyming speech of three disembodied witches are heard. Finally, the lights lift and Duncan (Dylan J. Fleming), King of Scotland, receives report of how brave Macbeth has put down the rebellion led by the merciless Macdonwald, disemboweling the villain by cutting him “from the nave to the chops.”

Raven Bonniwell and Danny Cackley in We Happy Few's 'Macbeth.' Photo by Mark Williams Hoelscher.
Raven Bonniwell and Danny Cackley in We Happy Few’s ‘Macbeth.’ Photo by Mark Williams Hoelscher.

It is perhaps because the story of and superstitions surrounding Macbeth are so well-known (the so-called “Scottish Play” had been my first introduction to Shakespeare as a nine-year-old) that We Happy Few’s stripped-down production currently running at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop is so effective. With only five actors playing multiple roles and costume changes often being the most minimal donning or doffing of a jacket, sash or pair of spectacles, the audience does have to pay attention to these shifts, but the attentive audience member is well rewarded.

Director Hannah Todd’s adaptation of this, the shortest of Shakespeare’s tragedies, is economical and lean, clocking in at just under ninety minutes without an intermission. Characters are composited, speeches and entire scenes are cut, but the effect is akin to an orchestral piece arranged for a chamber music quintet. Creative solutions to ensure the important themes and movements are played, and in the process, the inner architecture is revealed.

Todd, thankfully, has assembled a capable ensemble of players. As Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, Danny Cackley and Raven Bonniwell at the outset present a couple who display no obvious ambition towards assassination. Instead, they toy with the idea, conspiring playfully as many friends and couples do, never seriously expecting to truly become partners in crime until the scenario they’ve been imagining has simply become too intriguing not to surrender to now that the opportunity exists. It’s a particularly nuanced and fascinating pas de deux. They seem so unassuming until they have already assumed power and intend to hold on to it purely because they can not take the risk of relinquishing it.

The rest of the cast quite ably fills out the multitude of roles. Fleming’s Duncan is a jovial monarch ready to turn Shakespeare’s puns into dad jokes. As Macduff, Fleming becomes the grief-stricken hero who defers his personal vengeance in an effort to restore Malcolm’s claim on the crown.

Desirée Chappelle, with subtle changes of body language, alternates between the Duncan loyalist Ross (who has absorbed much of the dialogue assigned to the various Scottish Thanes and officers) and the ill-fated warrior privy to the witches’ fair and foul prophecy.

Stefany Pesta mostly plays the younger generation of Scotland’s ruling class and is particularly engaging as the Macduffs’ child (dressed in an Adventure Time Lady Rainicorn hoodie) for a bit of back-and-forth with Fleming’s Lady Macduff (in the paring down, Fleming doubles as both Macduffs). As the porter, she transforms the original knock-knock joke into an alt-comedy anti-joke. Unfortunately, Malcolm’s response to Macduff’s entreaties to restore his dynasty is one of the cuts made to keep the run time. It would have been interesting to see Pesta have a few more minutes to develop the role.

Bonniwell, Chappelle, Fleming, and Pesta also take their turns playing witches. Once the queen is dead, Bonniwell plays the double role of Macbeth’s armorer, Seyton, and the English General Siward.

Stefany Pesta in We Happy Few's 'Macbeth.' Photo by Mark Williams Hoelscher.
Stefany Pesta in We Happy Few’s ‘Macbeth.’ Photo by Mark Williams Hoelscher.

Sound Designer Ethan Balis’ musical score is nearly constant, but never manipulative. His minimalist arpeggiation does not attempt to create emotional undercurrents (he thankfully leaves that to the actors) but subtly underlines the essential rhythms of Shakespeare’s poetry.

Lighting Designer Jason Aufdem-Brinke expertly bathes the actors and minimalist set in light and shrouds them shadow, but most importantly, he avoids cliché in his color palette. In a play rife with regicide, infanticide, and other assassinations, it would be an obvious choice to emphasize red, but Aufdem-Brinke eschews anything so obvious, relying instead on rich blues and greens, and taking advantage metallic surfaces to bring out pink and gold hues.

Most importantly, in this tale of murder Fight Director Casey Kaleba is key in making the violence tell the story. Banquo’s murder is a brutally drawn out beatdown, while the slaying of Lady Macduff and the youngest Macduff is a more elaborately graphic affair. The knife fight between Macbeth and Macduff is the crowning choreographic accomplishment — a suspensefully intricate sequence of lunges, blocks, and arm locks.

In some political eras, we might take comfort that the events purport to have occurred across an ocean many centuries ago. But today we see the norms of our political system tested and strained, leaving Americans, especially those of us whose theater-going experiences are proximate to the local industry, wondering how much testing the system will bear, whether coalitions and alliances that once seemed solid will continue to hold. Plots that once featured in our entertainments as nightmare scenarios have been rendered passé by the nightly news. But perhaps what makes Macbeth most relevant is that these strains seem to come as much from personal paranoia and ambition as from the clash of ideologies. And of course, though Malcolm reclaims his father’s throne, Shakespeare’s witches pointedly note that whatever kings stem from his line will eventually be succeeded by the descendants of Banquo and Fleance. The restored norms may not be what we expect. Fair is foul, and foul is fair.

Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, with no intermission.

Macbeth plays through March 30, 2019, at We Happy Few at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop – 545 7th Street SE, Washington, DC. For tickets, purchase at the venue or order online.

Keith Hock, Dramaturgy; Sam Reilly, Stage Management; Moyenda Kulemeka, Costumes; Arnel Sancianco, Visual Design; Emily Sucher, Intimacy Choreography.

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