Like most of Shakespeare’s death march tragedies, Macbeth is one of those plays that seems to go on forever right up to its blood-soaked apotheosis. The final plunge into madness and death can be thrilling if it’s done well, but most Shakespeare productions just give me flashbacks to carrying around the heavy slab of a college-issued Riverside Shakespeare and scribbling finals week essays in little blue books alongside my fellow type-A Hermiones. It’s not always delightful material to revisit, and it’s often too familiar to give me the rare suspension of disbelief that is the best part of live theater.
But I have a hard time saying no to anything at Shaking the Tree—artistic director Samantha Van Der Merwe’s productions are too inventive, intricate, and carefully experimental to pass up—so I set aside my quibbles with Shakespeare to see how the company would handle the Scottish play. For the most part, director Van Der Merwe’s Macbeth is traditional—it’s performed in the round, with clever staging and set-pieces, and simple yet effective costuming incorporating an abundance of dark draping and a slick repurposing of lyrical sandals.
Where this Macbeth really shines is in its approach to gender, with casting that adds a welcome gloss of contemporary social commentary to well-known source material. Both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are played by women—Jamie Rea and Anne Sorce. It’s fun to witness Rea and Sorce, often seen crushing it in critical yet secondary roles, as Shakespeare’s morally bankrupt leads. And in an adorable in-joke for anyone familiar with the text, one of Shakespeare’s iconic witches (arguably the best part of Macbeth) is played gamely by a man, Sam Dinkowitz.
Shaking the Tree typically convenes solid supporting ensembles, and Macbeth’s no exception: Arie Annyita is effective in several roles, including Macbeth rival Malcolm; Heath Koerschgen turns in strong performances as both the Thane of Lochaber (there are so many thanes in this play!) and doomed Young Siward, and it’s especially a treat to see Portland theater HBIC Vana O’Brien among the witches—my plus-one even recognized her from a previous appearance as a witch in Artists Repertory Theatre’s Broomstick, because that’s how good Vana O’Brien is at witchy roles.
With Macbeth, Shaking the Tree makes something familiar into something dark and occasionally genuinely horrifying—but never as campy or rotely predictable as many Shakespeare productions. If you’re a jaded recovering English major, it may not seem essential, but for first-time viewers, there’s much to recommend it.