First, let it be known that Director Michael Socrates Moran's Macbeth is admirable for somewhat leveling the capsized ship of employment parity in theater. By hiring three women — Emilie Whelan, Lauren Spencer and Mia Tagano — to fill the cast, the point made is that these are gifted actors, not gifted women actors. Even so, Ubuntu's applause-worthy, contemporary take on Shakespeare's Scottish play leaves behind unsettling questions about feminism, male-ism, non-binary-isms, and the like.
In Moran's progressive treatment, women actors narrate and play all the roles in the story of the medieval Scottish general who kills his king to fulfill three witches' prophecy — and then must slaughter countless others, including women and children, to attain and maintain his position. As extensions of the three witches in the well-known tale, the cast members begin the play cradling swathed infants, together crooning a mournful, lament-like lullaby that returns throughout the production like a bad stench reminding us of death's decay. Blood in bowls — and later, smeared on virginal white pants and filling a shallow, conference table-length pool — bears a stench also. Every time an actor stirs a hand, foot, or entire body in blood, the scent assaults the nose and bloody drips or splashes become part of the sound score, thanks to the effective sound design by Alexander Kort and Jon Evans.
Karla Hargrave's haunting, sparse set design intensifies the atmospheric terror. The playing space is ominously rimmed with sun-bleached antlers; suspended above two medieval tables and upturned armchairs, thorny branches stripped of bark hover and threaten like a prickly death crown. Projected supertitles clarify location and announce characters entering and exiting to differentiate who is being played by each actor, who individually portray a half dozen roles.
Emilie Whelan is supreme, giving a versatile performance as Macbeth, the drunken Porter at the Gate, a flouncy Fleance, and others. Whelan reshapes the language of Shakespeare without changing a single word. A pause here, a shift of emphasis there, a drawn out vowel or extra clip on a string of consonants — each nuanced tweak causes the ear to hear familiar lines as if they are new.
Lauren Spencer in Duncan's regal brown overcoat strikes an elegant tone and as Macduff, Lady Macduff, a Witch and Ross, divides and defines the roles admirably not so much by resorting to gender stereotypes — men roar, women shriek, witches hiss — but by the rate at which their equal anger is expressed. Spencer is a master of physical and expressive control in each role.
Mia Tagano excels at adding essential texture; roughening the edges of her characters' impermeable male hearts and showing vulnerability as Banquo after he is betrayed by Macbeth's villainous behavior and, in the blink of an eye, amping up the ambition quota as a convincing, twisted Lady Macbeth.
It all works, yes, but questions linger after the one-hour-40-minute play with no intermission play roars to an end. Mental clouds form, especially upon re-reading Moran's program notes. Are women liberated from being "extinguished and savagely murdered," by placing the mantle of male aggression and misogyny on women actors' shoulders? Is revenge, mental illness, and physical violence expressed by women only acceptable or believable if translated or filtered through a male-tinted lens and a script in which men stab other men and suicidal women stab only themselves? Does having three women tell the story reveal "the dire loss of the feminine in the annals of power" or insure that feminism will secure and cease the "cycle of tyrants" in history — or the present age?
Unsettling as it may be, are these viewpoints on feminism and women presented in the play actually and simply continued male coddling? Is it more of the stigmatic presumption that women are naturally nurturing and non-violent — but here, cloaked in progressivism, it wears a clever disguise? Essentially, is Moran suggesting in his final notes that if given or assuming power through physical or financial force, women are less evil than are men? Tyrant, after all, is not a gender specific term or category. But thank you Ubuntu, because in making us question these tropes, we may discover our blindness and with open eyes, recognize the cycle's departure point when it next appears.
Through Mar. 15, $18-48, Flax Building, 1501 Martin Luther King Way, Oakland, 510-646-1126, UbuntuTheaterProject.com