Jessica Frances Dukes | Photo by Bill Brymer
Jessica Frances Dukes | Photo by Bill Brymer

“Hamlet” is a tragedy. The Danish Prince seems like he could’ve been a pretty nice guy up until the whole killing-his-dad-marrying-his-mother thing sent him into an angst spiral. In Les Waters’s modern adaptation of another tragedy, “Macbeth,” the play is no longer tragedy; it’s horror. More specifically, it’s a horror movie onstage.

Waters’s adaptation seems to strip the title character of almost every shred of hemming and hawing and bellyaching when confronted by his wife with his mission to kill the king and assume his throne. Sure, he’s a hero for the first few scenes of the production, but he crosses over to villainy without much prodding. The rest of the play ends up being a series of relatively innocent and likable characters getting slaughtered in pretty horrific ways and a whole bunch of visitations by supernatural creatures that are more terrifying by degrees.

With few exceptions, I’m of the opinion that Waters walks on water. This play is no exception. A spiritual partner to Actors’ “Romeo and Juliet” adaptation from 2012, Macbeth is modern, cinematic and embraces a contemporary crassness (for lack of a better word) that some Shakespeare purists might consider to be dishonoring the words of the Bard. I’d venture there were more laughs from this audience during Thursday night’s performance of the Scottish Play than have ever been heard before at a production of this tragedy.

(Side note: If you can, go to the opening night of any play at Actors. That’s typically when the Apprentice program youths are in the audience. They are the best audience ever. At times, the show felt like it could be a WWE match with their hooting and hollering. Love it. Never change.)

While Actors’ “Romeo and Juliet,” directed by Tony Speciale, was set in a hyperrealistic “Jersey Shore”/Kardashian now, complete with a swimming pool that may or may not have borrowed from Baz Luhrman’s movie adaptation, the only real signals of time in this Macbeth are the varying degrees of lumbersexual costume choices, thanks to designer Kristopher Castle, and the sliding glass doors on the minimalistic stage (more on that in a bit). We’re still fighting with swords and daggers; we’re still wearing crowns.

Conrad Schott and Andrew Garman | Phto by Bill Brymer
Conrad Schott and Andrew Garman | Photo by Bill Brymer

Macbeth is portrayed by Andrew Garman, who is quickly becoming a familiar face here in Louisville. He was the outstanding lead, Pastor Paul, in Waters’s production of “The Christians,” and he also appeared as part of the ensemble cast of Waters’s “Glory of the World,” a play I will never mention without bringing up the fact that it was one of my favorite theater experiences of my life. True to form, he’s a revelation as a the villainous Macbeth. His “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow…” soliloquy was so on point, I almost forgave the bastard.

Jessica Frances Dukes, new to Actors, was exquisite as the calculating Lady Macbeth. One thing that struck me, perhaps unintentionally, in this production was the couple’s childlessness. Somehow Dukes and Waters brought that to the fore in this production, which makes Lady M’s “we’re gonna get what we’re due” motivation even more palpable. Her pre-intermission exit, in other hands, could have come off as a cliche, but was so powerful and so gripped the audience, I half expected a standing ovation.

Be warned: this is not a production for the faint of heart and there were some empty seats after intermission (there were actually, a lot of empty seats to start with for opening night). Make no mistake, calling this a “horror movie” is intentional. Waters borrows liberally from the genre throughout the play, and the fact that the horror is live, breathing there in front of you, ups the terror.

I don’t want to spoil Waters’s unique take on the witches (although I’m sure someone else will — even Actors Theatre’s promo photos spoil it, shame on them), but they’re essentially one of horror’s most iconic figures of evil in triplicate. The play involves a lot of screaming and screeching, creepy rocking chairs, balls that seem to roll unassisted. Huge kudos to the original music and sound design by Christian Fredrickson for all the static, scratching, mumbling voices and squealing and a spectacular use of a should-have-been-obvious Lorde cover song.

The set design by Andrew Boyce reflects the adaptations sense of time-unknown. It’s both indoors and outdoors. It’s littered with debris, junk, mismatched chairs, children’s things. It looks like something tragic already happened there when the play opens. The stage is overhung with a bank of long fluorescent lights that are raised and lowered to create senses of claustrophobia and nakedness.

The cast includes a literal parade of children; I wish the playbill had included bios of at least the children with speaking roles. Three of the actors are the Ramirez children who have charmed audiences for at least two summers, maybe more, with their work with Kentucky Shakespeare. Vaughn Ramirez will tear you up in his brief performance of the son of Macduff.

It’s not often that you see fight choreography this masterful or executed so well. Ryan Bourque — no big surprise here — was also responsible for choreographing the epic brawl that had me wanting to leap out of my seats at the end of “The Glory of the World.”

And that may be what makes Waters such a treasure — he surrounds himself with exceptional collaborators, both on and off the stage. His evolving stable of actors and designers are not just good, they have vision.

So unless you’re really, really averse to horror — and if you can survive its Halloween-season brother in “Dracula,” you can survive this — treat yourself to this homage to big screen screams.

The show runs through Oct. 26.

Correction: the original review incorrectly identified the director of “Romeo and Juliet” as Les Waters. It was directed by Tony Speciale.

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