With a play as murder-riddled as “Macbeth,” the stage could easily be slopped with blood. In his elegant, architectural production, director Michael Kahn is judicious in his use of the red stuff, using blood symbolically, almost as a totem.
In the beginning, Macbeth (Patrick Page) wears his battle gash proudly on his cheek, as if it were a new tattoo. When he and Lady Macbeth (Kelly McGillis) commit their first murder, of Duncan, the King of Scotland (Ted van Griethuysen), their hands and white cuffs are stained crimson, but the rest of their clothes remain immaculate and untouched. As the body count rises and the dark deeds unravel Macbeth, his growing unease is signaled by a single red cross painted on his forehead by the three weird sisters (Naomi Jacobson, Sarah Marshall, Jewell Robinson), whose unearthly predictions set the course of Shakespeare’s swiftest tragedy.
“Macbeth” charts the trajectory of the former “brave knight” who quickly goes from being hailed as a loyal nobleman to a reviled, psychopathic tyrant after he is seized by a “vaulting ambition” — the result of the witches’ prophecy and some shrewd goading by his wife.
Lord and Lady Macbeth take up their daggers with a vengeance, killing kings, wives, children, anyone whom they believe stands in the way of their fragile safety. Revenge is fleet, with Macduff (Andrew Long) avenging the slaying of his entire family and finally installing the rightful heir, Malcolm (Brandon Demery), to the throne.
On a visual level, this production dazzles. Designer John Coyne has crafted a sleek Plexiglas and steel set that moves as cleanly as something out of the Ikea showroom. The palette is white and silver, with leafless trees giving the barest suggestion of Scotland’s forests. For all its efficient modernity, the set has the ability to conjure magic as characters appear and disappear via the inspired use of screens.
Shadowplay is this staging’s strongest asset. The witches are first introduced behind screens, their forms as indistinct as their voices are distorted. Their predictions unfold in a series of spooky, lantern-lit images susceptible to multiple interpretations, although Macbeth sees the phantasmagorical vignettes as a sure sign of his supremacy.
Shadows are also used playfully in a delightful sequence with Mr. van Griethuysen portraying a tipsy porter roused out of merry sleep. His hair knotted into the shape of devil’s horns, Mr. van Griethuysen makes the most of the situation, treating the audience to a seemingly impromptu magic-lantern show in which he fashions bawdy shadow puppets out of his fingers and nightshirt.
Linda Cho’s costumes are also stunners, especially the finery sported by Lord and Lady Macbeth once they seize the throne. Their period costumes reflect the rich, woven woolens of Scotland, tactile textiles shot through with gold and silver.
Beyond the purely visual, “Macbeth” is respectable but not greatly involving. Much of the problem stems from rabid overacting. Miss McGillis is shrill and demanding from the onset, only growing more frothing and out of control as the play progresses. Mr. Page exudes a certain lethal charm as Macbeth, a murderer with a movie-star grin, but by the second act, he, too, is gripped by overacting fever and resorts to bellowing.
Gems are mined in the supporting parts, notably Miss Jacobson, Miss Marshall and Miss Robinson as the witches. Similarly small in stature, the trio create a sisterly aura of supernatural unease, their menacing presence made all the more pervasive in their roles as alert attendants to Lady Macbeth. Michelle Shupe also contributes a brief, striking moment of golden domesticity as Lady Macduff.
With its cool, modern Danish sensibilities, the Shakespeare Theatre’s staging of Macbeth presents a portrait of ruthless ambition that attracts the eye but gives emotions the brush-off.
WHAT: “Macbeth” by William Shakespeare
WHERE: The Shakespeare Theatre, 450 7th St., NW, Washington
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through Oct. 24.
TICKETS: $12.75 to $68
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS