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.
William Shakespeare's Macbeth is no stranger to productions that experiment with gender. Fab Marquee Productions' 2015 Macbeth (of the Oppressed) (reviewed by us here), which gave Macbeth a husband and cast several of the other lead characters as women, and Red Bull Theater's 2019 Mac Beth, in which all the roles were played by a small cast of young women, come to mind as recent examples. No doubt the play's strong gender-oriented throughlines invite such reimaginings: from the start, for instance, Lady Macbeth—never identified other than by her title and her husband's last name—leverages constructions of masculinity against her husband and famously wishes to renounce the expectations of her sex. It is from this request, Lady Macbeth's invocation of spirits to replace the qualities associated with women with direst cruelty, that Obvious Volcano's Unsex Me Here: The Tragedy of Macbeth takes its name. Joining the collection of productions that use gender to reimagine Shakespeare's tragedy of vaulting ambition, Unsex Me Here provides a unique, high-concept but often understated rendering of the titular Scot's rise and fall.

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. 
There are moments scattered throughout those two hours when gender dynamics of the casting come into play in small, unexpected ways, such as when one of the Weird Sisters (Derrick Peterson, Adam Swiderski, and Bob Laine)—who are clad in black with red ties, the bottoms of their pants and jackets shredded to fringe, lending them something of the aspect of ravens or crows—mimes a kiss at Macbeth in the opening scene rather than answering him, a dismissal that would come across very differently with traditional casting. In a similar moment, after the discovery of the murder of Duncan (Hope Cartelli), when Banquo arrives, Macduff (Kristen Vaughan) turns from Lady Macbeth to him almost mid-sentence. Unsex Me Here also features some suggestive doublings by the cast, such as Duncan and the Porter, the Weird Sisters and the murderers commanded by Macbeth, one of the weird sisters (Swiderski) and the Doctor, and, most intriguingly, Lady Macduff (Bob Laine) and the Gentlewoman who observes Lady Macbeth's guilty sleepwalking, a guilt provoked in part by the murders of Lady Macduff herself, her children, and her servants. The presence of Comtois, who plays Banquo, and Cartelli, who plays Duncan, in the climactic battle scene further suggests the haunting of Macbeth by his violent transgressions.

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

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