In its nearly 20-year history, Dragon Productions Theatre Company has never before done a play by William Shakespeare, according to its artistic directors. When I heard it would be producing a stripped-down version of "Macbeth" as part of its Second Stages program, which provides mentoring and support for passion projects, I was, admittedly, a bit skeptical. One of the Dragon's strengths is offering seldom-seen, quirky little works. There are Shakespeare groups aplenty. Does the world really need another take on this well-worn classic? Would a lean "Macbeth" in the small Dragon space just translate as pretentiously "contemporary" or "low-budget?"
As it turns out, I needn't have worried. Led by local-theater power couple Max Tachis and Roneet Aliza Rahamim, who co-produce, co-direct and co-star, this "Macbeth" is powerful, visceral and haunting. It's a version I won't soon forget.
"The Scottish Play" is a tale of ambition run amok, treachery, fate and murder most foul. In this version, an eight-person cast tackles numerous roles. It tells the story of the legendary Macbeth (Tasi Alabastro), a nobleman whom a coven of witches (Sarah Haas, Troy Johnson and Rahamim) prophesize will become king of Scotland. They also tell Macbeth's comrade Banquo (Maya Greenberg) that he shall be the ancestor of kings. This is a Shakespearean tragedy so, naturally, things take an ill-fated turn.
Not one to sit back and let destiny take its course, especially when goaded by his formidable wife (Maria Marquis), Macbeth decides to speed up matters by assassinating King Duncan (Tachis, who also plays frenemy MacDuff and Third Lord), while the unlucky monarch is a guest in his home. This sets off a chain of betrayal, violence and villainy as Lord and Lady Macbeth fall deeper into paranoia, guilt and madness while desperately trying to hold on to the ill-begotten throne.
Maybe this is a relatively low-budget production, but in the innovative, resourceful sense. With an emphasis on the relationships between the characters, it's an emotional, intimately focused take on "Macbeth." The actors throw themselves physically into the roles, the witches craning their necks and rolling their shoulders like old-world vultures and hissing ominously; the ghost of Banquo stalking the stage in horror.
I've seen Alabastro in a number of recent productions and he's usually a lovable, affable presence. His Macbeth begins that way as well, so it's especially shocking to watch him quickly give into his darker side (it's quite jarring, too, to see him suddenly switch back to his regular, jovial persona immediately following the final scene). Marquis is a confident, intelligent performer who delivers Lady Macbeth's words in an accessible and human way. Greenberg gives Banquo a world-weary, wry sensibility and later proves pleasingly creepy as head witch Hecate.
The whole cast seems to be a tight-knit crew. They all stand together on stage before the show's start and after its end, giving the impression they're an established troupe.
One of my favorite aspects of the show was the sound design, credited to the ensemble as a whole. Each cast member takes turns, when they're not on stage, using drums, chimes and other implements to create the sound effects, including a truly chilling neck-twisting sound. Tachis designed the simple but effective set, which utilizes white drapes in a number of ways, with lighting design by Dylan Elhai. Rahamim handled the costumes, which give the team a uniform look of muted earth tones and dark red, with small changes (shredded jackets for the witches, twisty wire crowns for Macbeth and his Lady) to differentiate the characters. Red ribbons clutched between the fingers, around the neck or wrapped in baby blankets prove excellent -- and eerie -- stand-ins for blood.
Last year, the Dragon presented "Equivocation," which partly focused on Shakespeare (played by Tachis) as he creates "Macbeth" under the command of the new Scottish-born king, James I. The king's interest in witches, the recently discovered Gunpowder Plot against him and, of course, his Scottish heritage, all helped to influence the play. Tachis now leading "Macbeth" on the same stage proves a pleasing continuity.
They play has so many famous turns of phrase -- "Out, damned spot;" "sound and fury;" "the milk of human kindness;" "charmed life;" "something wicked this way comes" -- to name but a few. It's easy to forget their context, so overused and familiar have they become. With its first Shakespeare production, the Dragon has delivered a faithful yet surprisingly refreshing version of a classic.
Where: Dragon Theatre, 2120 Broadway St., Redwood City.
When: Thursdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 2 p.m.; through April 7.