Review: "Unsex Me Here" Offers "Macbeth" via "Mad Max" and Non-Normative Casting
Unsex Me Here: The Tragedy of Macbeth
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Maggie Cino
Presented by Obvious Volcano at The Brick Theater
579 Metropolitan Ave, Brooklyn, NYC
November 8-23, 2019
|L to R: Kimberly Singh, Kristen Vaughan, Ivanna Cullinan, Kiebpoli Calnek, Alex Guhde, Moira Stone. Photo courtesy Kampfire PR.|
Unsex Me Here sets the action in a post-climate disaster and post-pandemic community that is in a rebuilding stage, with Macbeth (Moira Stone) and Banquo (Rebecca Comtois) beginning the play returning with the spoils of their scavenging rather than from a pitched and bloody battle. As part of the transition to a new order with new structures of power, the program note explains, this community has also decided that cis-gendered men should be referred to with female-coded pronouns. The production keeps the pronouns of Shakespeare's text (though it does give Macbeth's admonition to his wife to bring forth men children only to Lady Macbeth [Mick O'Brien] instead) but casts its actors in roles that do not align with their real-life gender identity. While inverting pronoun usage to establish cis men's "less powerful place in society" might be seen reproducing the disparities inherent in gender binaries and the devaluation of the "feminine," it is thus significant that Malcolm (Kiebpoli Clanek), the next king and symbol of the community's future, is non-binary. The remainder of the changes come in the form of judicious cuts to the Shakespearen text: King Duncan's second son Donalbain and Lady Macduff's precocious son are both gone, for example, as is "Double, double toil and trouble," but Hecate (played from the booth by Berit Johnson), cut entirely in most productions, retains some of her lines. This is still Shakespeare, however, so even this smartly nipped and tucked version runs a little bit under two hours.
|Moira Stone and Mick O'Brien. Photo courtesy Kampfire PR.|
Unsex Me Here leans towards the subtle, the intimate, and the personal, its quieter choices aided by the dimensions of The Brick and the audience's proximity to the actors. There is little declaiming to be found here, and no groups of actors running across the stage to represent the chaos of battle (the closest is the darkness and swirling disorientation of the scene in which the Weird Sisters summon spirits in response to Macbeth's demands). O'Brien brings fine-drawn nuance to Lady Macbeth right from her first scene, when she receives the news of Macbeth's advancement and sets her sights on further elevation by any means. O'Brien and Stone generate palpable chemistry and tension in the scene in which Lady Macbeth persuades Macbeth to regicide, and Stone's reaching out reflexively to touch Lady Macbeth after hearing of her death is one of those small but effective and memorable moments that characterize this production. Stone's Macbeth seems almost surprised at himself at times, and she, for instance, delivers Macbeth's dagger of the mind meditation with a sense of self-awareness and irony. Touches like Swiderski's Doctor and Peterson's Seyton suggesting increasing disdain for Macbeth late in the play bring additional freshness to the interpretation.
Vaughan is excellent as Macduff, and perhaps most so as Macduff processes the murder of his family, when she takes full advantage of the different perfomative dimensions that are opened to her by casting against gender identity. Coupled with Maggie Cino's direction, this casting experiment imparts new energy and inflections to familiar scenes, especially noticeable in early scenes featuring a female-presenting Duncan, Macbeth, Banquo, and Ross (Ivana Cullinan) together. One hopes that it won't require an apocalypse for us to begin to rethink gendered normativities (including their reinforcement through language), and Unsex Me Here: The Tragedy of Macbeth provides an entertaining starting point with a singular (re)vision.
-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards