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For any Fringe festival, the question is never whether Shakespeare will appear but to what degree. His oeuvre remains so popular and subject to such a rich variety of interpretations that it’s not rare to witness simultaneous takes on the same show (Exhibit A: Twelfth Night at the Lantern and the Wilma this past spring). Now, the 2023 Philly Fringe serves Macbeth two ways.
Spanking Macbeth, an original play by a new ad hoc company, follows a troubled production of the Scottish play in which washed-up actor Simon Bane (Mark Knight) plans to stage his triumphant return. Rehearsals become rocky, however, when Simon clashes with the director and begins to sleep with his Lady Macbeth. It seems to contain the requisite elements for a Shakespearean riff—a play within a play and the promise of tragedy renewed—but it all amounts to a thoroughly unpleasant night at the theater, seesawing between spells of boredom and perturbation.
Much of the unease stems from the relationship between Zoozi (Kathryn Gardner), the tightly wound ingenue who is cast as Lady Macbeth, and Simon, who is 30 years her senior. The problem is not that the play engages with one of the thorniest issues in our culture—namely, the power imbalances that facilitate sexual misconduct—but that it does so with a lack of context and dimensionality. Simon’s history of sleeping with his younger co-stars is so consistently regarded as slap-on-the-wrist behavior that it seems as though the play does not exist in the same world as ours. At best, it’s a misguided approach; at worst, it feels repellent. It doesn’t help that Knight is utterly unbelievable as a charismatic womanizer in a one-note performance as depthless as the script or that Gardner offers the sort of broad, overly emotive work that is redolent of high school theater.
Clumsy sexual politics aside, there is little to be found here. The script lurches along with all the subtlety of an overeager English student, breaking the fourth wall as if discovering the term for the first time. The set is mostly bare, scenes awkwardly blocked and poorly arranged, in what often feels more like a staged reading than a full production. Bree (Emily Dale White), the director of the in-world Macbeth, tries to salvage what she can in a flashy, discordant turn that nonetheless comes closest to the semblance of a realized character.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy of Spanking Macbeth, however, is that there is hardly any Macbeth to be found. The play makes mere scaffolding of one of the great works of world theater, with no interest in invoking any of its uncanny awe. In one scene about midway through, Spanking Macbeth makes good on its title and presents Zoozi walloping Simon’s uncovered posterior with a hairbrush in the wake of sex with more force and frequency than seems (ahem) dramaturgically necessary. If this be the curse that arises from uttering “Macbeth” in a theater, perhaps it’s best that we all do our part to heed the superstition.
Macbeth in a Bar
Macbeth in a Bar, the other Fringe offering to present the Scottish play, came then as a bit of a palate cleanser for its coarser cousin. Produced by Shakespeare on Tap for two performances at Lilly’s Ferry in Old City, this Macbeth staged the text in an environment akin to that of Shakespeare’s day. Jacobean-era audiences would have arrived at the theater with drink in hand, engaged with the actors, and snacked throughout—more akin to your average barroom than a Broadway stage. In keeping with this spirit, the actors learned their lines, met for a single rehearsal, and staged the show thereafter, with no director, for the first time.
While this Macbeth occasionally conjured the riotous energy to which it aspires, it never quite connected with this particular space. Part of this is because Lilly’s Ferry seems an ill-suited venue for Macbeth, or at least for this iteration. It’s not the ale-soaked tavern that the company’s mission statement would seem to demand, but rather a narrow, upscale cocktail bar: at times, less Macbeth in a Bar and more Macbeth in a Hallway. Too many scenes were isolated in one corner of the bar, which swallowed the quieter dramatic fare. The victims here were, ironically, Macbeth (Devin Preston) and Lady Macbeth (Iris Athena Seaman) in two performances that never quite sparked, too small for their given space.
More successful supporting roles seemed to take center stage. The three witches (Valleri Bowman, Roxy Geers, and H. Caroline O’Connell) prowled the space with preternatural verve, taking full advantage of the theatricality of their roles. As they took turns knocking back shots and incanting dark prophecy, they came closest to filling the venue. Other highlights were Lady Macbeth’s comic episode (Elena Nahrmann, who also doubles as Banquo), a trouble spot for many Macbeths that was admirably executed here amidst the latter-act carnage, and the onset of the English army, using green umbrellas for the onset of Birnam Wood.
It must also be remembered that this is a ragtag effort, the manic improvisations of professional actors who must perform without ever having seen the space. In that sense, it was a joy to watch even when it stumbled, and especially as it invented new ways to tell a centuries-old tale. The unevenness of this particular endeavor became part of its charm—even if the space was frustratingly out of joint.
What, When, Where
Spanking Macbeth. By Spanking Macbeth, directed by Simon Bane. $20. Through September 23, 2023, at Vox Populi, 319 N 11th Street, #3, Philadelphia. (215) 413-1318 or phillyfringe.org.
Macbeth in a Bar. By William Shakespeare. $15. Through September 17 and 18, 2023, at Lilly’s Ferry, 10 S Front Street, Philadelphia. (215) 413-1318 or phillyfringe.org.
Vox Populi is a wheelchair-accessible venue.
Neither event requires proof of vaccination to attend or masks to be worn.
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