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If there’s any one reason to see Philadelphia Theatre Company’s production of Macbeth in Stride, a reimagining of the Shakespeare classic on the Suzanne Roberts stage, it’s to watch its writer and lead actor Whitney White bring some real star quality to our city’s stages.
White is not only a chilling, deeply compelling Lady Macbeth, she also belts demanding soul and rock numbers like “Reach For It” and “I For You” with swagger and conviction. The young artist recently worked as a writer on Boots Riley’s Prime Video series I’m A Virgo, which I haven’t seen, but based on her stage presence alone, Hollywood should be rushing to hire White for the next movie or TV musical.
Produced in association with Shakespeare Theatre Company and Brooklyn Academy of Music and directed by new PTC co-artistic directors Taibi Magar and Tyler Dobrowsky, Macbeth in Stride is clever and wildly entertaining. But the play is more confused than coherent as a critique of Shakespeare’s patriarchal framing of women.
Women and the Bard
The Bard’s stock of female characters is infamously limited past a certain age, and the women in his tragedies, regardless of their ambition, are typically either killed, go mad, or both, as with Lady Macbeth and Ophelia. Macbeth in Stride examines not just how the classics treat ambitious would-be queens. There are also themes of selfhood, being a woman, and being a Black woman actor when the theater has so often failed you. I overwhelmingly sympathize with the intent, yet White’s script makes some key conceptual mistakes that get in the way of the “rock concert” the Three Witches (Stacey Sargeant, Ximone Rose, and Chelsea Williams) offer us early on.
Sargeant, Rose, and Williams all bring energy, grace, and wit to their performances, largely keeping up with White’s own singing and dancing. However, while the Weird Sisters guide the Scottish Play’s actions, bringing Macbeth to his tragedy and the events to their bloody conclusion, it’s not always clear what the Witches are doing in this adaptation beyond backup singing. Are they a chorus bringing Lady to her character’s fate, or are they her supporters? Are they the same characters we see in the original play? White is playing a version of herself, acting out Lady Macbeth as both incarnation and performance, much like Man (Keith Rubin, understudying for Charlie Thurston) is both an actor and is Macbeth.
But what really trips the show up might be Lady Macbeth’s discussion of feminism and how conventional narratives punish feminine ambition, especially when the production runs only 90 minutes without an intermission. Lady Macbeth pushes her husband into murdering a sleeping man, stabbing him to death in their guest bed for the throne. Macbeth in Stride tries to make the character more sympathetic, an emblem of contemporary womanhood, but it doesn’t always know how to confront her bloody collusion with her husband. Katharine from Taming of the Shrew or even King Lear’s Cordelia may have been easier characters for interrogating these ideas.
A musical success
As a critic, I think White’s play is deeply flawed, but as an audience member, this production is extremely fun, especially with a backing band on the stage (directed by Steven Cuevas) to help play White’s incorporated score of gospel, Broadway, rock, and soul. The sound mixing is often muddled, so it’s harder to hear specific dialogue, but the cast’s vocals are typically strong enough to carry White’s lyrics over the rafters. If Macbeth in Stride falls apart as theatrical critique, it still works well enough as a musical that I’d never tell anyone not to see it—though I may not say the name out loud. I don’t plan on risking a curse when I can’t offer this a strong recommendation.
What, When, Where
Macbeth in Stride. By Whitney White, directed by Taibi Magar and Tyler Dobrowsky. $35-$68. Through November 19, 2023, at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 South Broad Street. (215) 985-0420 or philadelphiatheatrecompany.org.
The Suzanne Roberts Theatre is an accessible venue with wheelchair seating available on the orchestra and mezzanine levels. There will be an audio-described performance on Saturday, November 11, at 2pm, an ASL-interpreted performance on Wednesday, November 16, at 7pm, and an open-caption performance on Friday, November 18, at 2pm.
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