Of William Shakespeare’s tragedies, “Macbeth” is the shortest and the most straightforward. It tells a simple story: A Scottish lord, goaded by his ambitious wife, murders his way to the throne, only to meet a bloody end as prophesied by three witches early in the play.
Actor/director/playwright Kyle Hatley has taken it upon himself to make the play even shorter in his 90-minute adaptation, “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” now onstage at the Living Room Theatre. He strips the play down to its essentials while retaining most of the key dramatic moments and speeches. In Hatley’s hands it becomes a tightly condensed “best of” version of what superstitious theater folk often refer to simply as the Scottish Play. (The title carries with it a rich anecdotal history of disasters and catastrophes befalling theaters that stage the work; to mention it in a playhouse supposedly brings bad luck.)
Hatley, formerly the associate artistic director at Kansas City Repertory Theatre who is now based in Chicago, remains a vital part of the Living Room’s creative family. Audiences there have seen Hatley’s audacious productions of the musical “Carousel” and Shakespeare’s bloody “Titus Andronicus,” and many will recall Hatley’s vivid performance in “Hurlyburly,” David Rabe’s drug-drenched Hollywood drama.
Here Hatley streamlines “Macbeth” into a fast-moving exercise in metatheater. Two actors — Hatley and Natalie Liccardello — play all the roles. Hatley handles Macbeth as well as numerous other kings and lords, while Liccardello plays Lady Macbeth and a gallery of male and other female roles, including the doomed Lady Macduff, a ghost and, amusingly, the drunken porter. Live music, provided by Sean Hogge on electric guitar and electronic keyboards, hightens the action and helps establish mood. (Hogge also appears as one of the three witches.)
As an actor, you must say of Hatley that the guy brings it. At his most intense Hatley is a force of nature and in this show he holds the audience with sheer magnetisim and explosive emotion while exerting impressive control. When he speaks the famous speeches (“Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,” etc.) he makes them sound fresh and spontaenous. Liccardello is poised and charismatic, bringing a less incendiary (but no less commanding) brand of intensity to the stage. Her performance as Lady Macduff is a dramatic highlight of the show.
Hatley’s script includes spoken stage directions (“Enter Duncan”) and sound cues (provided by Hogge). Although performed continuously, the actors also announce the breaks between the five acts. At times Hatley provides his own written descriptions of the action and, for the sake of clarity, often includes a helpful “she said” or “he said.”
There’s a playfulness in Hatley’s approach that includes seemingly unscripted communications between the actors and Hogge. Sometimes you may feel you’re watching a dress rehearsal. At one point in the first of two Saturday performances Hatley commanded that they run part of a scene again. In other moments Hogge seems to miss sound cues, drawing glares from the actors. I suspect most of this was carefully staged, but it delivers a sense of spontaneity. Some viewers may simply find it confusing.
The theatergoer’s experience of this show depends entirely on the seating. Much of the action takes place in a long playing area between two sections of spectators. Other attendees are seated on risers at a slight remove from the action. At times you may witness a scene in super-closeup that delivers a discomfiting level of intimacy. But other key moments happen at a considerable distance. The lighting is provided by overhead naked light bulbs and a chandelier but a number of key moments are played in candlelight.
I can’t say there was a great demand for a 90-minute version of “Macbeth,” but this world-premiere production shows the audacity and creativity we’ve come to expect from most of Hatley’s original work. Without question, it fills your head with indelible images. I suspect this piece could have a life beyond the Living Room production.
“The Tragedy of Macbeth” runs through Sept. 3 at the Living Room Theatre, 1818 McGee St. Call 816-533-5857 or visit http://www.thelivingroomkc.com