The show: William Shakespeare's "Macbeth" at Hartford Stage
What makes it special?: The second show in repertory, with "La Dispute," which opens the theater's 50th anniversary season.
First impressions?: Think "Breaking Bard." Walter White's television descent into evil has nothing on this infamous cursed Scot. Darko Tresnjak has directed his excellent cast through a pitch black, brutal and soul-scorching journey that looks into the heart of darkness with unblinking fierceness. Matthew Rauch and Kate Forbes are mesmerizing in the leading roles in this stark, swift and spellbinding production.
What's it about?: After a triumphant battle, noble thanes Macbeth and Banquo encounter a trio of "weird sisters" who predict the future: that Macbeth will be king and Banquo's heirs will also rule. Like a bad seed planted, this prophecy takes root in Macbeth's pysche and spreads to his desperate castlewife. As this malignant cancer grows to stage five levels, the two are soon plotting to assassinate the king and killing anyone who stands in their way of capturing the crown —- until guilt consumes one and the full embrace of evil destroys the other.
"Full embrace of evil." Sounds cool: It is, starting at the first dynamic entrance of the three witches (Mahira Kakkar, Kaliswa Brewster, Kate MacCluggage make up the terrific trio of medieval evil). This is a strange, soul-less world full of rough magic and an even rougher existence.
Just look at Rauch's taut, tough, head-shorn Macbeth (a nod to Walter White here?). But in the beginning of the murderous rampage, his task nearly takes his breath —- and ours —- away, just as Forbes' resolute Lady M seizes the situation with a chilling control, one that also reveals some cracks.
But as the first act ends, an extraordinary, shocking transference takes place with Rauch's tormented-but-now-terrifying Macbeth fully possessed by the spirit of evil and his wife becoming the victim of that violent blackness.
The rest of the cast is terrific, too, and incredibly well-spoken and exact in intent. As Banquo, Grant Goodman clearly shows the path of right when faced with bewitching temptation. David Manis fills Duncan's robes royally —- and then later transforms himself as the shocked doc tending Lady M. In the show's only light escape, Noble Shropshire as the drunken porter turns knock-knock jokes into a marvelous comic turn. (He's also steadfast as loyal subject Ross.)
Robert Eli solidly delivers on both heartbreak and revenge as Macduff. Philippe Bowgen is likewise strong as Malcolm (though the long scene with Macduff is the only point the action idles). Jeffrey Omura, Jake Loewenthal, Tom Foran and youths Eric Murphy and Aleksei Sandals complete the cast with versatility and distinction.
Kilts? Modern dress?: Neither. Though there are flourishes of feudal and military attire of 11th century Scotland, one is not overly conscious of the period. Suttirat Larlarb's elemental designs evoke a world where dark magic is possible —- rather than hitting you over the head with historic costuming.
Any reservations?: A few taste issues. The droopy witches' breasts are more comic than grotesque. And the actors get unnecessarily upstaged in their well-deserved curtain call.
Who will like it?: Shakespeare fans who like their Bard fast and furious.
Who won't?: Those who like their darkness with more light. Or a bit more populated. The 15 cast members, 2 of which are children, can seem thin at times, though some scenes that traditionally demand a crowd -- or an army -- are ingeniously staged. Tresnjak also designed the stark set that is enriched by Matthew Richards' unforgiving lighting and Jane Shaw's unnerving sound design.
For the kids?: There are no vampires or zombies here, but wait, there's Banquo's bloody ghost. In fact with witches, spells, clanging swords and even a beheading, edgy teens could connect just fine with the proper prep. But caution: younger kids might have nightmares.
Twitter review in 140 characters or less: Something wicked -- and powerful -- this way comes.
Thoughts on leaving the parking lot?: Not all "classics" are created equal. While "La Dispute" left me unengaged, "Macbeth" was one killer-diller of a production. With a dreamy "Tempest" and a playful "Twelfth Night," Tresnjak has brought fresh, intelligent Shakespearean productions back to Hartford. One looks eagerly to the next productions from the canon.
The basics: "Macbeth" will be performed in repertory with "La Dispute" at the theater on 50 Church St., Hartford, through Nov. 10. Running time for the show is 2 hours and 15 minutes, including one intermission. Information at www.hartfordstage.org and 860-527-5151.Copyright © 2015, CT Now