MEDFORD, Mass. — Watch out, Macbeth. Birnam Wood has come to Medford Square.
This may be ominous news to Shakespeareans, but it’s all good as far as us Medfordians are concerned, particularly for those of us who have longed to see the Chevalier Theatre used for the kind of drama that the Actors’ Shakespeare Project produces.
Unlike other theaters, ASP roams the Boston area looking for new and different spaces to stage the Bard and when artistic director Allyn Burrows moved his family to Medford he happened upon the grand old Chevalier, built in 1939 under the Works Project Administration stimulus. It doesn’t have the Art Deco ornateness of Boston theaters like the Paramount or Opera House, but it does have a huge stage, which provides the kind of epic proportion that you rarely find in Shakespeare productions these days. (The lack of raked seating is not so wonderful.)
But Burrows, who also plays the murderous Macbeth, and director Paula Plum make pretty spectacular use of the space. Plum and her superb design team have given the production a 1920s feel that evokes World War I bloodshed, Gothic ghostliness and the mix of Shakespeare and Hitchcock’s “Rebecca” that helped make “Sleep No More” a fantastic production in both senses of the word.
Less successfully, she turns Banquo into a woman (Banquette?) from the Red Cross to no good purpose and the three hags into three nuns, based partly on her reading of Aldous Huxley’s “The Devils of Loudon,” which so provocatively limned sexual hysteria in a French nunnery. But except for a twitchy second-act dance, they are a bland trio. And why do these hysterics have the gift of clairvoyance? If I had met three nuns who could have predicted the future I would have become a Catholic. And a gambler.
Macbeth, of course, should have stuck to playing the Scottish ponies instead of thinking that he was invulnerable, but then we wouldn’t have had a great play about a world gone wrong when the natural moral order is turned upside down. And the inescapable Karmic wrath visited upon those whose ambition gets the better of them, particularly when it turns deadly.
Burrows captures all of that in a riveting performance that goes from his dubiousness and indecisiveness about killing the king to his Richard III bloodthirsty cover-ups and finally his ultimate breakdown and (spoiler alert) death. He gets a little carried away with making funny faces to punctuate the text, but it’s such an otherwise solid performance, particularly when he addresses the audience as fellow conspirators, that we can let it slide.
Unfortunately, it’s the only great performance onstage — though if you’re going to have one great performance in “Macbeth,” Macbeth is obviously the one to have. Others are solid — James Andreassi’s Macuff. The usually reliable Richard Snee looks too amused as the ill-fated Duncan and too serious as the porter. But the big disappointment is Mara Sidmore’s cuckoo Lady Macbeth. She and Plum start out on the right foot, showing how her vicarious living turns into its own sexual hysteria and murderous musings, but the performance is too monotonal, hardly a match for Burrows’s nuanced delivery. Plum also quotes Huxley on the idea of “downward transcendence,” of wanting to attain “the consciousness of being someone else” and Plum and Burrows capture that piece of Huxley brilliantly.
The virtues here far outweigh the flaws. I’m so used to seeing ASP do Shakespeare on relatively small spaces that it’s a nice change to see them take to a proscenium so deftly. “Macbeth” does well by Medford on the Mystic, and vice versa.