St. Louis Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’ a mixed bag

Ben Ritchie and Michelle Hand in "Macbeth."
Ben Ritchie and Michelle Hand in "Macbeth."

St. Louis Shakespeare’s modern interpretation of “Macbeth” is inspired by graphic novels, resulting in a hybrid of old and new.

On opening night, the production was hamstrung by acoustic issues, which sucked the life out of the foreboding first scene of the witches’ prophecies.

Before the show and during intermission, loud pulsating music filled the auditorium to create a hip vibe — hearing that was not a problem.

This wasn’t supposed to be your English class “Macbeth” — hooray! — but Ted Drury’s fluctuating sound design that followed and some of the ensemble’s minimal fury unfortunately signified a mixed bag — with a few solid performances and some impressive tech work as highlights.

When thunder and lightning drowned out the trio’s droning, it deprived us of those iconic ominous moments we expect.

Shakespeare’s epic tale of politics, power and paranoia takes place during a Scottish civil war in the Middle Ages. Macbeth rises, but not fast enough as his ambition becomes insatiable, encouraged by his ruthless wife.

Oh, the cold-blooded mindset that feeds this new monster induces chills. That is why Shakespeare’s Scottish play has been a favorite for the ages.

As the title character, Ben Ritchie, a careful study, projected the internal conflicts and grew more forceful in the second act, displaying his torment as he vanquished rivals.

Michelle Hand, believable in her descent into madness, was strongest when her tightly controlled Lady Macbeth manipulated her husband, and also when her grasp of reality faded. Hand always finds nuances to give the roles she plays more dimensions.

Both Ritchie and Hand, who work well together, demonstrated a palpable chemistry and the desperation as their doomed relationship spiraled out of control.

In supporting roles, Maxwell Knocke stood out as Banquo, the loyal friend betrayed by the increasingly tyrannical Macbeth. His ghostly apparitions fittingly fueled Macbeth’s guilt while his earlier bond made it even sadder.

Kim Curlee projected a regal air as King Duncan.

In non-traditional casting, Maggie Wininger was a mighty Macduff, summoning bravery and vengeance. While the role reversal didn’t bother me, the modern footwear — contemporary red boots you can purchase at local shoe stores now — and a black leather outfit more akin to dominatrix attire, did. Nevertheless, she robustly strutted on stage.

Some characters attempted Scottish accents while others sounded like they were from Iowa. The heating/cooling vents near me made it even harder to discern what the mumble corps was saying.

Puzzling delivery of key emotional lines was also bothersome. Several characters announced tragic occurrences as if they were telling co-workers: “I’m ordering lunch. Do you want anything?”

Perhaps I’ve seen too many bracing, passionate and electric productions in recent years, and it was impossible not to compare. The Repertory Theatre’s vibrant 2011 version remains vivid in my mind. That cast crisply strode onto stage with a purpose, and grabbed us with an intense, fierce energy.

On the Ivory stage, a number of warriors and royals casually strolled onto the stage, several uncomfortably aware of acting, with stilted movements and lack of expression.

This summer, Opera Theatre of St. Louis presented a big and bold “Macbeth” that resembled “Game of Thrones,” conveying both the savagery of battle and the doomed power couple’s dramatic downfall. Sure, it was a large stage, but the innovative ERA did a refreshing spin with a sparkling, highly imaginative “Trash Macbeth” in tiny confines.

Costume designer JC Krajicek’s work is usually spot-on, but this mash-up of contemporary, hipster and traditional medieval clothes was too much of a jumble of conflicting styles, detracting from the characters. And Nike swooshes on a Macduff youngster’s shoes were careless boo-boos.

Going after a new generation is noble, but defining a servant in punk-y, urban outfit with new-age war paint common to graphic novel types, mixing modern in Lady Macduff’s gown, while other roles were historical period specific was just odd.

The best tech work included admirable fight direction by Erik Kuhn and expert lighting design by Nathan Schroeder, which elevated the eeriness.

Set designer Chuck Winning created a striking ginormous gnarled tree drenched in moss, creating platforms that director Suki Peters effectively used to heighten the supernatural elements.

Nevertheless, placing the witches that far back didn’t help audio amplification. The hearing woes dampened my enthusiasm for this potentially potent classic.

This play is a showcase for deeply felt performances amid shocking treachery, fraught with danger at every turn, cloaked in melancholy.

While the essentials are emphasized in John Wolbers’ script adaptation, the execution was not always successful.

Flashes of excellence were apparent, but more attention to the little things, not just the big picture, was needed.


Who: St. Louis Shakespeare

When: Oct. 14, 15 and 16

Where: Ivory Theatre, 7620 Michigan Ave., St. Louis 63111

Information: 314-361-5664 or www.stlshakespeare.org