"The Sisters" at The Clemente Center
It feels like every modern production of Shakespeare is all about the take. What is the company/actor/director’s take on the material? What are they going to try and say with the material that is different from the preceding 400 years worth of invention and reinvention of the text? At a certain point it makes you wonder, if the life-support reinvention is the only thing keeping Shakespeare going, why don’t we pull the plug? Then a show like The Sisters comes along with a bold vision, the moxy to play with the text, and a creative team able to screw their courage to the sticking place and see it through to fruition. When a show like The Sisters comes along, Shakespeare feels right again.
Our story begins in familiarity, three witches on a heath, there to meet with Macbeth. Though the presentation, even as early as this, is fresh and distinctive. The titular weird sisters are not haggard warty crones in pointed black hats. They are dressed in earthen robes suggesting authentic paganism, rather than the Judeo-Christian demonization of empowered womanhood that we are used to. They interact with the natural world as if they are part of it, with an innocence and a mystical groundedness. When the world of men intrudes on them, the usual machinations are set in place, all ready to topple Duncan and set the Thane of Glamis on the throne. However the goal of the witches and their non-binary presented chief Hecate seems to be less for the punishment of Lord Macbeth, and more for the betterment of his wife. As the play unfolds further and further, Lady Macbeth is drawn more and more into the world of the Sisters, and faces up to facts of her own muliebrity she had not previously considered.
Writer Alexander Pepperman creates this new story by repurposing Shakespearean dialogue from different sources to form new monologues and conversations. Whilst there are occasional moments where this is jarring, and the patchwork lining shows through, generally speaking his textual work is adroit and thought provoking. He and director Morgan Sullivan ask good strong questions of the established narrative for the Macbeth story. For the most part they relate to issues of gender empowerment against the tyranny of patriarchy, whilst showing female mysticism as a more welcoming, more natural fold. It’s most definitely a work of radical gender politics, but it is far from being the disappointing didactic diatribe usually conjured up by those words. Instead it is engaging, thoughtful, and pleasantly eerie.
Of course a work like this is nothing without a strong cast backing it up, and the players here are rather striking across the board. Ava Kostia, Laura Yumi Snell and Taylor Marie Rasmussen make excellent witches. Whether they are winding up charms, or soundscaping to the tune of the live string trio, they remain pleasingly ethereal, and yet simultaneously grounded and immediate. Michael O. Tubman plays a strong Macbeth with the grace and good manner to know that the story being told is not his. Jeffrey Marc Alkins is a solid Banquo, providing the much needed balancing voice of skepticism to much of the goings on. Marcus Xavier Stewart plays Hecate, giving a performance that’s a masterclass in dynamic stillness and bodily control that everyone from classical stage actors to modern drag queens could learn from.
However it would be very much remiss not to dedicate a large chunk of praise to the lady who carries the evening on her shoulders from the moment she takes the stage. Helen McMillan as Lady Macbeth is a real head-turner. The part as done in a regular production of Macbeth is a marathon in and of itself, here all of the role’s hurdles are kicked up a notch, and yet McMillan leaps over them with a rare mixture of grace, grit, and acuity. Watching her face the murderer’s dilemma is already good theatre, but her subsequently witnessing the deterioration of her husband, and then staring down the prospect of leaving everything she has ever known behind her elevates the work to something truly special.
The Sisters is a magical, mysterious piece that quite honestly begs rewatching. Not only is it a sight to see, but it is dense and full of easily missed and layered information. You will not get all of it in one go, but you should certainly try. It features a unique discussion of gender and power structures, a visually stimulating depiction of Pagan aesthetic and practice, and a cast full of stellar performances. SoHo Shakespeare present a classic story with reworked text that focuses on bringing a diverse experience of Shakespeare to people from all walks of life. Rather than shoehorning a new moral in to an old lining, they break down the existing materials before them and reconstitute them into something new and fresh. It is interesting, engaging, and wound up with charm all its own.
SoHo Shakespeare Company
May 16 - June 2
LATEA Theater @ The Clemente Center, 107 Suffolk Street, New York, NY 10002