Scots on The Rocks: The Humanist Project’s Lively New “Macbeth” Comes to New York Stage

(This article originally appeared on Huffington Post on 4/25/17.)


The first characters we meet in The Humanist Project’s zesty new production of William Shakespeare’s enduring Macbeth are the legendary Three Witches, aka “The Weird Sisters”. Against the appropriately dark setting of a black box stage adorned only by a few flickering lights, these three mysterious prophets of tragedy (played by Welland H. Scripps, Claire Warden, and Zach Libresco) twist and contort their sinewy bodies into a darkly foreboding frenzy, talking “witchspeak” before leaving us with the famous rhyme, “Fair is foul, and foul is fair. Let’s fly away through the fog and filthy air!” Be afraid. Be very afraid. The wildest— and wickedest— is yet to come in this new version of Macbeth, directed by Andrew Borthwick-Leslie. The bewitching trio will soon return to meet the play’s title character: “A drum, a drum! Macbeth has come!” Meet our newest Macbeth (Michael F. Toomey), Thane of Glamis and a revered general in the army of Duncan, King of Scotland (Scripps).

The Witches deliver a titillating prediction for Macbeth and his friend/fellow general Banquo (Josephine Wilson, playing the role with cool, no-nonsense androgyny): Macbeth will soon become Thane of Cawdor and then (Get ready!…) the new King of Scotland. Interestingly, the three also claim that Banquo will be father to a line of kings, though he himself will not be one— a predilection that invites a pivotal plot twist later on. When the first of the Weird Sisters’ prophecies comes true, Macbeth wonders just what will happen next— and just how it will happen. In possibly one of the most eloquent allusions to homicide in literary history, Macbeth soon has murder on the mind: “If good, why do I yield to that suggestion, whose horrid image doth unfix my hair, and make my seated heart knock at my ribs, against the use of nature? Present fears, are less than horrible imaginings.” We soon meet Lady Macbeth. As anyone familiar with this legendary character already knows, this Lady was never a dainty ornament but rather a high-spirited, almost manic schemer. She goads her husband— who she believes is “too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness”— into killing King Duncan and framing his servants. She also helps devise the plan for the regicide. Not long after the audience hears Macbeth’s eerie line “Is this a dagger which I see before me?“, the dirty deed is done, and both the troubled Lord and his Machiavellian wife literally have blood on their hands. Now king, crowned and accented with symbolically blood-red regal trappings, Macbeth nevertheless brews over the Witches’ claim that Banquo’s heirs are destined for power. His solution is “Things bad begun make strong themselves by ill.” Put another way: Bad deeds force you to commit more bad deeds. Put yet another way: There’s more murder ahead in Macbeth… as well as a banquet with a special appearance by a ghost, a descent into insanity, and the rise of a posturing tyrant.

The intermission of Borthwick-Leslie’s two-hours-plus Macbeth offers a much-needed cool-down, but as soon as the trio of magical sisters appear again on stage (now joined by their Queen Hecate, played with delicious over-the-top indulgence by Josephine Wilson), their bubbling cauldron symbolically represents the play’s drama boiling to a fever pitch. Amidst a concurrent civil war, his increasing madness, and (all together now…) more murders, Macbeth drifts into the role of maligned dictator— increasingly choosing personal power over responsibility to his people, and making more and more irrational statements. (Can we mention the relevance in 2017?) Lady Macbeth’s guilt, meanwhile, culminates with the ultimate curtain call. The play concludes with an artfully choreographed fight scene and a bloody “lesson learned” about ambition going over the edge.

What’s most astonishing about this new Macbeth is how five actors play over 20 characters (although, due to the play’s rather high body count of 12, many of them don’t make it to the end…). With only minimal variations in costume, the youthful and easy-on-the-eyes cast makes their impressive and smooth transformations mostly through changes in accent and/or vocal inflection, as well as changes in stage persona. An example is silver-haired Welland H. Scripps, who expertly plays the major characters of Duncan and Macduff, but then dons a skullcap and Eastern European accent to appear as one of Macbeth’s hit men… and the audience doesn’t even pick up at first that it’s the same actor. Michael F. Toomey and Claire Warden make an well-matched pair as the troubled Macbeth and his passionate Lady, who’s so bold that she even gets physically aggressive with her brawny husband. Toomey makes an impressively fluid transformation as the conflicted antihero, attempting to be imperious but disturbingly aware of his own dark impulses as he hallucinates about daggers and descends into psychosis. Warden plays the iconic role of Lady Macbeth as a fiery force of nature; She’s captivating to watch. Macbeth may be a tragedy, but this cast is clearly having fun, with Zach Libresco possibly having the most fun in his scene as a clownish, drunk castle porter. Waxing poetic, Bard-style, about the simultaneous joys and miseries of booze, his moments of raunchy levity are no less than hilarious. If any neophyte Shakespeare fans in the audience that night were at first intimidated by The Bard’s overindulgent old English, then their fear was likely swept away by this production’s fast-moving pace and its crystal-clear message about political ambition and ego gone wild. (Can we mention the relevance in 2017 again?) But even diehard Shakespeare fans who’ve seen Macbeth in all of its past incarnations will want to take another trip to Inverness. This castle is crackling!

The Humanist Project’s Macbeth continues through Sunday, April 30th at The Secret Theatre, 44-02 23rd St, Long Island City, New York. Visit for more information.

(All photos by Ariella Axelbank.)

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