One of the keys to the longevity of William Shakespeare’s plays — beyond how dang good they are — is their seemingly infinite adaptability to different historical periods and cultural milieu. “Macbeth,” Shakespeare’s popular tragedy of an ambitious Scottish lord’s murderous rise to the throne and bloodier attempts to wipe out all perceived rivals, is certainly no exception.
African-American Shakespeare Company’s new production of “Macbeth” in San Francisco is an adaptation in several ways at once. On the one hand, it’s the West Coast debut of a modern verse adaptation by playwright Migdalia Cruz, written for Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s “Play On!” series of contemporary English “translations” by an impressive array of contemporary playwrights.
At the same time, artistic director L. Peter Callender also sets the play in a homeless encampment under a freeway overpass. He opens the play not with Shakespeare but with “I Must Become a Menace with My Enemies,” a powerful poem by June Jordan forcefully delivered by Macbeth (Adrian Roberts) and the cast. At the end of the play, everything after the final battle, is replaced by an impassioned, poetic speech about the politics of power written and performed by Jamey Williams, who playfully portrays Malcolm, the rightful heir to the throne.
Entering the Taube Atrium Theater in the Veterans Building, the audience passes through a movingly realized homeless camp full of tents and cardboard signs and various bric-a-brac in Samira Mariama’s set dressing. On stage, projected backgrounds display the crowded underpass and various other atmospherically dilapidated settings as part of Kevin Myrick’s dramatic lighting design.
The heart of this production isn’t any of these trappings, but a stunning performance by Adrian Roberts as Macbeth. He’s an especially fearsome Macbeth in a marvelously understated way, able to convey worlds of menace in a steely gaze. Roberts’ Macbeth goes on a journey from wavering horror to cold calculation to numb resignation, but from the start his whole bearing shows that he’s not someone not to be trifled with.
Leontyne Mbele-Mbong has a slightly dazed and twitchy air about her as Lady Macbeth, a part she played with Woman’s Will 11 years ago. While she rallies herself to prod her husband on when he begins to waver, there are plenty of indicators early on that she’s not quite well mentally.
Champagne Hughes is a strong and forthright Banquo, Macbeth’s close comrade who soon comes to be seen as a threat, and Lijesh Krishnan as is a stern and serious Macduff, hero of the resistance, as well as an infirm, wheelchair-bound King Duncan with a quavering voice.
Cruz’s modern-language version is for the most part pleasingly unobtrusive. Most of the changes seems to be small edits for clarity, preserving much of Shakespeare’s complex syntax and most of the famous lines intact. Even so, occasional lines become jarringly banal in their straightforwardness, and there are a few glaring anachronisms such as using “carbon copy” as a metaphor.
While the setting amid a homeless camp offers a lot of interesting visuals, its relation to the play is confusing at best. Aside from the occasional amusing prop or interesting use of a tent, the setting hardly seems to inform the action of the play at all. There seems to have been some kind of raid or police action of some kind at the start of the show, but it never comes up again once Shakespeare’s story starts.
The shift back to the camp at the end happens in a vexingly hackneyed way that robs what came before of some of its resonance. The prologue packs some power in its own right as a reminder of the many people for whom our society has failed, but the connection to the play is never really made. There’s no reason “Macbeth” can’t be set in a homeless camp, but this production doesn’t really make a case for why it should be either.
Contact Sam Hurwitt at firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow him at Twitter.com/shurwitt.
By William Shakespeare, adapted by Migdalia Cruz, presented by the African-American Shakespeare Company
Through: July 28
Where: Taube Atrium Theater, 401 Van Ness Ave., 4th Floor, San Francisco
Running time: Two hours, no intermission
Tickets: $35; www.african-americanshakes.org