There will be blood in Erica Schmidt’s adaptation of Shakespeare's "Macbeth," which brings the horror back.
Seven girls convene at dusk in an abandoned lot, somewhere that playwright Erica Schmidt describes in her script as “an urban wasteland”: tall grass, an overturned couch, bits of trash, a dented metal light pole, dogs barking and cop sirens in the distance.
The girls, all in hooded, Catholic-school-girl-looking uniforms have come to play “Macbeth.” Apparently, it’s a game they like. “Where hast thou been, sister?” one asks. “Killing swine,” another answers. They all laugh like kids and keep moving the play forward with convincingly passionate but amateurish acting (“schmacting,” as some people in the theater world call it) through Shakespeare’s ultraviolent play. The stabbing and slapping look real (the kids really throw themselves into it), but it’s just rough play. There’s no blood.
Until there is.
The audience, on the night I attended, gasped. The girls, led by the sanguine witch characters (Sophie Kelly-Hedrick, Laakan McHardy, Analiese Emerson Guettinger), keep playing.
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Some people say “Macbeth,” which might have premiered in 1606, is all about ambition — a lower-middle-management guy and his wife in the royal pecking order of Scotland trying to kill their way to the top. Per the second sentence of the play’s Wikipedia page: “It dramatizes the damaging physical and psychological effects of political ambition on those who seek power for its own sake.”
Sure. “Macbeth” deals with ambition gone awry (I dare you to find a play that doesn’t), but it’s really about blood and babies: Who has heirs; who doesn’t; how many gallons of gore you need to shed to climb the corporate ladder of 14th-century Scotland, where your annual performance reviews aren’t about how much stuff you sold, but how many throats you’ve slit. The words “blood” and “bloody” appear 41 times in “Macbeth,” and its most famous lines (“is this a dagger which I see before me,” “out, damned spot,” “who would’ve thought the old man to have had so much blood in him,” etc.) are all about scarlet heart-juice.
Schmidt’s abandoned-lot adaptation, called “MAC BETH,” understands this — brilliantly so — and restores the play’s deep horror to a contemporary audience thinking bloody thoughts about school shootings, mean girls, bullying and teenage abortions.
How much harder do its bloody lines land when spoken by children toting real knives and blood-red baby dolls around the stage? Harder, for sure, if you walk into the theater as a Shakespeare nerd who can watch Schmidt’s chin-stroking intellectual games, already knowing what the play is about. But the success of “MAC BETH” depends on your Shakespeare-nerdishness. Roughly 98 percent of “MAC BETH” is a play within a play (young actors aping bad-young-actor acting). If you, like my date that evening, are not a Shakespeare nerd and walk into the show cold, Schmidt’s inside-baseball adaptation probably won’t hit as hard. (Side note for nerds: You already know it’s unlucky to say “Macbeth” in a theater unless you’re doing the play. Years ago, I heard an actor casually refer to “the play about the dog.” I was visibly confused. He smirked and said: “Out, damned Spot!”)
But, for the nerds, “MAC BETH” has a few chilling moments.
Second place in the blood-curdling contest goes to Lady Macbeth, Izabel Mar, who gives her play-within-a-play performance as a normally shy girl venting her suppressed adolescent fury through the “Macbeth” game. She growls her most infamous line — about her willingness to nurse a baby, look at it smiling in her face, and smash its brains out — with convincing venom.
First place goes to the witches’ cauldron-spell scene (“double, double, toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble”), where a schoolgirl in her uniform (Guettinger) throws in “nose of Turk” (yeesh) and “liver of blaspheming Jew” (double yeesh) followed by “finger of birth-strangled babe.” The other props had been indistinct lumps, but for the last she pulls a microscope slide out of her backpack.
Witch 2 (McHardy) breaks her “Macbeth” character for a moment and asks, believably: “Where did you even get that?”
It’s the best moment of this production — McHardy breaking from her “character” in the play within a play, and becoming her own character, a girl who is actually dumbfounded by something in the real world that suggests science, the real world, actual human stuff.
But the girl-witches get back to their business, which gets nastier by the minute as the make-believe violence of “Macbeth” meets the real-world violence of their game meets the make-believe violence of watching this all on stage. Who knows what real-life cruelties the girls are sublimating through their roles as the killers and the killed, the climbers and climbed-upon?
We can guess, but Schmidt — like Shakespeare — never spells it out. Schmidt had to cut significant chunks from the play to make it a one-act “Macbeth.” But she left in everything about blood and dead babies.
Ultimately, “MAC BETH” is a snake eating its own tail, which is an exhausting intellectual exercise — and a rewarding one, if you’re in the mood for that sort of thing.
“MAC BETH” by Erica Schmidt. Through June 24; Seattle Repertory Theatre, 155 Mercer St., Seattle; $16-$66; seattlerep.org