Picture a sinister gathering in the dark of night, with witches chanting a spell over the mournful groan of a didgeridoo. That’s how director Casey McClellan begins the lean and persuasively gloomy "Macbeth," now staging at Sacramento Theatre Company with a focus on mayhem, murder and madness.
Dark-haired, bearded actor William Elsman plays the title role with a gleam in his eye and twitchy hand on his sword. When he meets three witches on the heath, he calls out to them “How now, you secret, black and midnight hags, what is’t you do?”
And they reply, with cryptic evasion, “A deed without a name!”
We’ve seen Elsman at STC before, playing characters like Sherlock Holmes. But "Macbeth" offers Elsman the opportunity to show what he can do in a role that involves a lot more opportunities for dramatic depth, as well as the chance to deliver some of Shakespeare’s most memorable lines.
Elsman certainly seems to relish the opportunity, and he does quite well. He brings an effective through-line to the part, so that Macbeth’s rash decisions, moments of hesitation and regret, and final frenzy follow a sequence that makes sense.
McClellan opts for what might be described as the “witch conspiracy” interpretation of this story. Initially, when Macbeth asks the three witches what the future holds for him, the witches tell him exactly what he hopes to hear: that he will become king (which is exactly what he was hoping).
Then, McClellan has the witches pop up in other scenes (where Shakespeare’s script doesn’t necessarily specify their presence). For instance, in Macbeth’s speech “Is this a dagger which I see before me?” the witches literally hold out a glowing blade to tempt him. It’s as if the witches are greasing the skids for Macbeth’s fall.
Atim Udoffia plays Lady Macbeth, and while I enjoyed her scenes, she didn’t bring quite as tangible a sense of a through-line to the role as compared to Elsman. They do, however, share some scorching kisses as they contemplate their bloody conspiracies together.
Macbeth can sense that he’s losing his grip. But he won’t let go of the crown. Eventually he’s trapped in his own castle, surrounded by an opposing army, defiant to the end, crying “Yet I will try the last! Lay on, MacDuff! And damned be him that first cries hold!” Elsman is convincing as he does these scenes with desperation, bravado and despair.
The three witches — Janet Motenko, Ruby Sketchley and Monique Lonergan/AJ Wleker alternating — represent three different generations, and they’re good. The cast also includes three actors who’ve done well in recent Davis Shakespeare productions — Ian Hopps as Macduff, Kevin Gish in a variety of small roles, and Sarah Rothaus — and they acquit themselves well in this production.
Carissa Meagher, back from a stint in Ireland, has several memorable scenes as the doomed Lady Macduff and the supernatural Hecate (standing imposingly tall in platform shoes).
Seeing this show alongside teenagers, I smiled as they became strangely quiet, both fascinated and horrified as Macbeth hurtled toward his doom like a passenger on a hellbound train. In fairness, I should admit that I got pretty quiet, too. I’ve seen many productions of "Macbeth," but I still find this 400-year-old play captivating when it’s done well. Centuries come and centuries go, but there’s something mesmerizing about observing the swift fall of this wicked, bloody tyrant.