Among William Shakespeare's numerous tragedies, there is none quite like Macbeth. With the possible exception of the ghosts that he was so fond of sprinkling throughout his plays, Shakespeare's tragedies contain relatively few elements of fantasy and mysticism, and yet Macbeth is absolutely packed with them. Beginning with the infamous witches ("Double double, toil and trouble . . ."), whose meddlesome machinations are woven into every major plot point, and continuing through the various floating daggers, reappearing bloodstains and wacky prophesies about walking forests, Macbeth is like a weird fairy tale gone spectacularly wrong.
This, of course, is what makes Macbeth so good—that and the fact that it carries some of Shakespeare's best and boldest writing.
In director Jon Tracy's highly inventive staging of the play, which just kicked off the Sonoma County Rep's annual Sebastopol Shakespeare Festival, the fantasy elements are pushed to the edge of madness, all pivoting on Tracy's head-spinning decision to turn the witches into—wait for it—clowns.
Macbeth (Scott Phillips, in an oddly stiff and cold performance) is a faithful soldier to Duncan, the king of Scotland (Jack Halton). On the way home from a significant battle, Macbeth encounters the clowns (John Turentine, Marjorie Crump-Shears and Francisco Garat), who tantalize him with their predictions of the future, including their promise that he will someday be king himself. When Macbeth's wife (Rebecca Pingree, sexy and strong) learns of the mystical prophecies and sees that they are beginning to come true, she carves out a plan by which her husband can become king right away—he merely has to murder Duncan.
And so it begins.
The cast, though a bit uneven, are solidly committed to Tracy's bold vision and carry his premise through with admirable energy and a detectable trace of wicked delight. Tracy's truncated adaptation of the script keeps things zipping along. I may never have seen a staging of Macbeth where the actions and motivations of the characters were so clearly drawn.
Tracy's elegant sideshow-of-the-damned set gives his characters, especially those clowns, plenty of room to prowl and pop up from trapdoors. As for those clowns, the "witches" of Shakespeare's story are every bit as interfering as in other versions—more so, actually, as they frequently stand in for some of the script's minor characters: servants, porters, hired assassins. But by turning them into clowns, Tracy has added something truly eerie and potent. Clowns, all the way back to the beginning of clowning, have always been the watchful outsiders, the world-weary commentators who've seen it all and usually know what's about to happen next.
Here, the witches aren't evil so much as they are agents of Fate, shepherding the unknowing mortals from one event to the next. It doesn't always work (the porter's famous "equivocation" speech is rendered almost meaningless when placed in the mouths of the clowns), but when it does work, which is most of the time, it's spectacularly effective. Particularly powerful is the way the clowns multiply their numbers right up to the story's last mesmerizing moment.
'Macbeth' runs Thursday&–Sunday through July 25 at Ives Park, corner of Willow and Jewell streets, Sebastopol. 7pm. $20&–$25; Thursday, pay what you will. 707.823.0177.