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Stephen Tyler Howell in MacbethX5 at Joel Asher Studios. (Photo by Enci Box)
Stephen Tyler Howell in MacbethX5 at Joel Asher Studios. (Photo by Enci Box)

Macbeth x 5

Reviewed by Paul Birchall
Joel Asher Studios
Through November 19


Hubble bubble, toil and trouble, here’s a Macbeth that’s performed crackerjack on the double! Yes, fasten your seatbelts to enjoy the bumpy, but fast ride that is this crisp, albeit journeyman-like production of that Scottish Play whose very title sends chills up and down the spine of every thespian worldwide. 

Director Joel Asher strips Macbeth down to a little over an hour, shrinking the ensemble to five actors, who play all the roles. The result is a version of the play that comes across as a chamber piece, with intimacy and subtext replaced by tricks and visual panoply. The production very occasionally plays like a sort of Reader’s Digest condensation of Shakespeare (if anyone still remembers those). This is not a bad thing by any means: Asher’s staging unclips and zips along quite brilliantly, but it feels a little awkward that within 15 minutes of being tipped off by the three witches, Macbeth is already gutting King Duncan like a blowfish in the middle of the night.

This is not a Macbeth that will remake the wheel, but what it offers is intense and commendably clear. It’s a great introduction to Shakespeare and it hits all its marks with compelling precision — from the countenance of the three witches, who torment Stephen Tyler Howell’s Macbeth by wearing shroud-like schmattas and orating with open mouthed rictuses of horror, to Chase Cargill’s ferociously enraged Macduff, whose grief swiftly transitions to vengeful rage in a way that reminds us of a locomotive mowing down a field of sheep. 

Admittedly, we might long for a little more depth and context in some of the famous speeches — but as Lady Macbeth, Alexandra Wright’s eyes blaze with a venomous glare, and it is no mistake that she also depicts one of the writhing ghosts. Howell’s Macbeth starts out genial and cheery (he has some nice “bro”-like moments with Cargill’s Banquo), then unnervingly devolves into rapacious ambition. His relish at performing his wicked acts puts us in mind of one of the handsome but wily characters from Game of Thrones.

John Iacovelli’s deceptively simple stage design consists of several platforms, lined with near-transparent scrims in the shape of Stonehenge-like slabs that remind us that of the play’s ancient pagan origins. Christopher Moscatiello’s sound is pleasantly spooky, full of odd squawkings, ghostly voiceovers, and brooding undercurrents.

If there’s an issue here, it’s with the production’s workmanlike presentation. Asher’s staging offers little that’s innovative or exceptional in terms of performance, — from Lady Macbeth’s straightforward “Unsex Me Now,” to the rather routine sword fight finale between Macbeth and Macduff.

On the other hand, you really don’t need to go back to the drawing board every time you want to make haggis, and a production of Macbeth is sometimes just a production of Macbeth. This is still a fine show to take your high school class to, or to attend if you’ve never seen it before. 

Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd, Los Angeles; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through Nov 19. (310) 477-2055 x 2 or Running time: 80 minutes with no intermission.