A rare expansion of the Scottish play

Quintessence Theatre Group presents Shakespeare’s Macbeth

5 minute read
Miller, in a velvet jacket & gold crown, pauses in thought. Behind, Parkinson wears a strapless dress, holding a wine glass
From left: Daniel Miller, Corneilus Franklin, Scott Parkinson in ‘Macbeth’ at Quintessence Theatre Group. (Photo by Linda Johnson.)

In many a modern Shakespeare, you can expect to see a particular dimension of the text heightened or subverted. It is usually a singular conceit that announces itself as creative impetus: the director’s implicit response to why do this play, and why do it now. Quintessence Theatre Group’s new staging of Macbeth, rather than contenting itself with one answer to this question, wants to have it all.

This Macbeth sprawls to nearly three hours with an all-male cast, blockbuster set pieces, and the rare script that expands on Shakespeare’s original rather than trimming it down. Like its central figure, it propels itself to dizzying heights, even if its reach ultimately exceeds its grasp.

The soldier-turned-king

Directed by Alex Burns, this production tells the tale of Macbeth—the rise and fall of a soldier-turned-king, his ambitions whetted by promises of prophecy and power—in a grandly maximalist tenor. It uses the familiarity of Shakespeare’s plot to layer on a host of formal approaches, all channeled through a larger-than-life cinematic voice. At times, it’s a method well-suited to Macbeth, demonstrating its tragic arc with viscera and verve. At others, it finds itself wrestling with the text, bending it to the whims of this particular mode.

Where the approach works best is in the play’s realization of its most action-packed episodes. The fight scenes (directed by Sean Bradley, with genuine weight and gore) are the obvious examples here, unfolding with a calculated dynamism, but their intensity carries through to other scenes that typically don’t receive such choreography. A soldier’s exposition is underscored with a battle in the background; Macbeth (a charismatic Daniel Miller) imagines the death of the king while the assassination occurs about him, in slow motion, before it ultimately comes to pass. In this way, the play is cousin to other recent Macbeths—Daniel Craig on Broadway, Denzel Washington on film—that channel action-star virtuosity to create propulsive political thrillers.

Big-budget soliloquies

This sweeping style often makes ample room for its veteran cast with soliloquies that are tantamount to big-budget set pieces. We can revel in Christopher Patrick Mullen’s sottish turn as the porter, who doubles here as King Duncan in a dual role that seems designed to remind us that Mullen is one of our region’s finest Shakespearean performers.

The true revelation here, though, is Lady Macbeth, in a richly textured performance by Scott Parkinson. (The director’s choice of an all-male cast is reflected almost exclusively through her, given that the witches are masked and essentially genderless.) She arrives onstage in an incisive transition in which Parkinson dons a dress, applies lipstick and rouge, and transforms from background soldier into Lady Macbeth (costumes by Kelly Meyers). A steady drumming, previously used to announce the Scottish army, thrums all the while (director Burns also designs the sound). It suggests a militarism to the process of stepping into gender, arming oneself with the tools of one’s sex as one would the instruments of war. Parkinson’s performance is charged with this same intensity, wielding femininity as a blade. We witness this Lady Macbeth sex herself, so to speak, so her spiritual invocation to “unsex me here” resonates with a cutting precision. It’s what this Macbeth achieves in its finest moments: the application of artifice so that it can be taken off, laying bare untold depths within.

Dulling the witches’ mystique

Not every creative gambit works nearly so well, though, especially with the expanded role of the three witches (Corneilus Franklin, Jamison Foreman, and Lee Thomas Cortopassi). In addition to incorporating the play’s episodes with Hecate—scenes which, in most modern Macbeths, are left on the cutting room floor—Burns includes text from Thomas Middleton’s The Witch, a Jacobean-era play that is only notable insofar as its relationship to Macbeth.

Against a dramatic green mist, three black-draped witches in creepy skull-like masks strike contorted positions.
Jamison Foreman, Corneilus Franklin, and Lee Thomas Cortopassi as the witches in ‘Macbeth’ at Quintessence. (Photo by Linda Johnson.)

We thus return to the witches more than I’ve ever seen in a production of Macbeth, but where the play’s treatment of Lady Macbeth is so sharply considered, its conjuring of the witches is broad and overplayed. It seems to call upon them again and again in hopes that, by doing so, it will discover what it wants to say. Their presence is occasionally amusing in hyenic gambols that echo the cackling zombies of The Evil Dead but mostly serve as a reminder of why the modern trend is to limit their role. More time with the witches only dulls their mystique.

The drawbacks of cinematic style

The insertion of this additional text means that the rest of the play must move at a faster clip to accomplish its already outsize runtime. Here is where the cinematic style that worked wonders on the battlefield gives other scenes shorter shrift. When Macbeth and Banquo (Vaughn Meccod, in an overenunciated performance) first stumble upon the witches, they hardly have time to process their otherworldly appearance, much less their subsequent portents before the scene is already over. Similar is the death of Lady Macbeth, which Macbeth only briefly has time to consider before the play insists he must return to battle.

The play also offers such a degree of theatricality, in such rapid procession, that one almost forgets to consider Macbeth. It’s not that it’s a bad performance: Miller acts the part with admirable restraint, offering a steely demeanor that is at home on the battlefield but bristles when tasked to fill the shoes of a king. He is more subdued than most Macbeths, but only because he has to be. With much of this production dizzily in the air, this Macbeth must keep his feet rooted to the earth.

And yet, in ceding much of the space typically afforded to Macbeth, we see the cost of this play’s chosen mode. Yes, some moments are delivered with breathless intensity—Miller’s frenzied turn when he sees Banquo’s ghost is a particular delight—but others are reduced to mere footnotes, too quickly delivered to realize their full weight. Macbeth is typically a slenderer object than this, one whose power emerges from the stillness between its lines. This production, for all its wondrous sound and fury, wants for this stillness and is in the end less than the sum of its fantastical parts.

It’s hard to complain too much, though, when we are offered such sumptuous sound, such resonant fury. It comes necessarily to a tragic end, but you can’t ever fault it for lack of ambition.

What, When, Where

Macbeth. By William Shakespeare, directed by Alex Burns. $25-$60. Through April 21, 2024, at the Sedgwick Theater, 7137 Germantown Avenue, Philadelphia. (215) 987-4450 or quintessencetheatre.org.


The Sedgwick is a wheelchair-accessible theater. There is an accessible restroom located in the lobby of the theater. Seating accommodation can be requested at the time of purchase both in person and online.

Masks are encouraged, but not required.

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